With the rise of Islamic extremism across the globe, speaking to Bangladeshi Muslim journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is like catching a breath of cool, fresh air on a hot and sweltering afternoon.
As editor of The Weekly Blitz, an English-language newspaper published in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Choudhury has been an outspoken critic of radical Islamic fundamentalism, denouncing the hatred and violence it has spread in its wake.
A proponent of greater dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Jews, he has called on his fellow Bangladeshis to recognize the State of Israel and establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.
Though founded as a secular state in 1971, Bangladesh is currently ruled by a coalition government that includes two Islamist parties. Islamic extremism is reportedly on the rise.
Of the more than 140 million people who live in Bangladesh, an estimated 106 million are Muslim.
The country is due to hold elections in January, and by all indications, the radicals are set to increase their strength at the ballot box.
In this tense atmosphere, Choudhury has paid a very heavy price for his beliefs. In November 2003, he was arrested at Dhaka's international airport just prior to boarding a flight on his way to Israel, where he had been scheduled to deliver an address on promoting understanding between Muslims and Jews. His visit to Israel would have been the first by a Bangladeshi journalist.
The government accused Choudhury of treason, sedition and blasphemy, and tossed him into prison for 17 months, where he was tortured. He was released in April 2005, thanks in part to a campaign that was waged on his behalf by American human rights activist Dr. Richard Benkin.
But the Bangladeshi government decided to pursue the charges against him, and Choudhury was arraigned in a Dhaka court on October 12 on multiple counts of espionage and sedition.
Just days before the start of his trial, a mob of 40 people, including senior members of Bangladesh's ruling party, stormed the offices of his newspaper and assaulted Choudhury, leaving him with a fractured ankle. Local police failed to make any arrests, and refused to allow Choudhury to file charges against his attackers.
His trial resumes on November 13, and if convicted, he could face the death penalty. Both the US State Department, as well as international human rights groups, have denounced the legal proceedings against him.
Despite the dire circumstances in which he finds himself, Choudhury remains strong, upbeat and determined. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, his first to a Western newspaper, he praised the Jewish people and the State of Israel and explained why it is essential that the West confront Islamic extremism.
What led you to decide to speak out against Islamic extremism? Weren't you concerned about the possible repercussions of doing so?
Since my childhood, I listened to the provocative sermons of the clerics in the mosques during Friday prayers, where they repeatedly encouraged the people about Jihad and fighting against Jews and Christians. They would bring an example of a verse of the Holy Koran, which says "those who will make relations with the Jews and Christians will be in their groups." But my father, the late Ghulam Ater Choudhury, always suggested to me not to believe these words and to look at the world with a broader perspective.
So, when I grew up, I remembered the words of my father. An opportunity came for me when I met Russian Jews for the first time, while I was working for the Russian news agency Itar-Tass. By mixing with them, I discovered excellent human qualities. They were always extremely friendly and honest to me. They never hated me because I was a Muslim. So, when I established the Weekly Blitz newspaper, I thought it would be best for me to tell our people the truth - to unmask the nasty faces of Islamist radicals.
By that time, through my investigative journalism, I was aware that extremists were being incubated in the madrassas and more precisely in kindergarten madrassas. Of course, I was aware that the term "Jew" itself was viewed as a kind of horrific pronunciation in the Muslim world. But someone has to take the responsibility of breaking down such firewalls of lies. So I started publishing positive articles on Judaism as well as on Israel in the Blitz. I also asked my American Jewish brother, Dr. Richard Benkin, to write positive articles for the Bangladeshi press, which I managed to get published in the largest English dailies.
Why do you think it is important for Muslim countries such as Bangladesh to have a dialogue with Israel and the West?
There is no alternative to dialogues with mutual understanding and mutual trust, which ultimately turn into multi-level cooperation.
Were you surprised when you were arrested in November 2003 before boarding the flight to travel to Israel?
Yes I was! Because, although our passports are not valid for traveling to Israel or to Taiwan, as Bangladesh does not have diplomatic relations with them, many people travel to Taiwan regularly. There are even exchanges of high-level delegations between Dhaka and Taipei. So, I thought, as a journalist and editor, I had the right to travel to any country.
How did the government react to your intention to travel there?
The Bangladeshi government's reaction to my attempted travel was unprecedented. They initially considered me to be an agent of Israeli intelligence and later, two months after my arrest, they brought charges of sedition, treason and blasphemy against me. Intelligence officials were trying to force a confession from me stating that I was working for the Mossad. But, in reality, I have never worked with any intelligence agencies.
During your period of imprisonment, how were you treated? Did the government use means such as torture and intimidation against you?
Yes. After arrest, I was not only tortured during interrogation, where they broke my leg with a field hockey stick, but I was kept in an isolated prison cell with hardened criminals. Initially they even placed me in a cell which is especially built for mentally insane people. The mental and other forms of torture still continue, such as when I received threats to my life from Jihadists and the government did not arrest the people who threw bombs in my office. Recently, when I was beaten by activists of the ruling party, the government has been acting to save the attackers instead of according justice to me.
Why do you think the Bangladeshi government is putting you on trial? What is their motivation in doing so?
The Bangladeshi government wants to make their radical partners in the coalition happy. They want to show that they have finally convicted an "agent of Jews." Their intention is also to let others know that, "if you speak in favor of Judaism or Israel, you shall have to be hanged."
Are there many other people in Bangladesh and the Muslim world who share your concerns over the rising tide of fundamentalist extremism?
From my experience, I have realized that there are many people who do not support Bangladesh becoming a kind of Taliban state. They oppose Islamist fundamentalists from the depths of their hearts. But they are certainly afraid of expressing such convictions, fearing repression.
Why is Islamic fundamentalism succeeding in attracting so many followers? What is its appeal?
The main reason that Islamist fundamentalism succeeds in countries like Bangladesh is poverty. Poor people can not obtain a general education. They send their children to madrassas, where they only learn hatred. On the other hand, during each winter season, there are mehfils (gatherings) of people where Islamist orators are invited to give speeches. Unfortunately, these are speeches which spread the poison of religious hatred, inspiring people toward Jihad. Such activities are funded by various Afro-Arab NGOs and other sources.
On the other hand, the media in Muslim countries are also gradually falling into the grip of radicals. The radicals are spending money on the media to spread their messages. The main message of the Islamists is: "Jews and Christians are your enemies. So hate them to remain a Muslim."
They make up imaginary stories about Jews torturing the prophet of Islam as well as repression of Muslims in Israel. Such stories are so well constructed that people become kind of hypnotized into listening and believing them.
Do you think people in the West are sufficiently aware of the dangers posed by Islamic extremism?
No, I don't think so. The people in the West have a very foggy idea about the dangers posed by Islamic extremism. That is why they too are visibly silent in countering the false propaganda of the radicals in the media. But one thing I can say is that by allowing radicals to be incubated in Muslim countries, the West is giving a chance to the evil forces to generate thousands of Osama Bin Ladens for future generations. If they want this trend to end, they should definitely work out a formula aimed at having certain media in the Muslim countries, which would at least confront the lies and culture of hatred promoted by the radical-controlled Muslim media.
Some, including US President George W. Bush, have used the term "Islamic fascism" to describe the extremists. Do you think this is accurate?
Islam is a religion of peace. It never permits bloodshed or killing innocent people in the name of holy war. We hear about Islamist suicide bombers. But, if we look at the verses of the Koran, suicide is treated as an unforgivable sin. Those who participate in such barbaric atrocities shall surely be destined to hell according to the Koran. But some evil forces are using the name of Islam for their evil motives. In this case, the US president is definitely right in terming it Islamist fascism.
What are your views on Israel and Jews in general?
Israel is the only democracy in the Arab world. This country is making remarkable progress in science, technology and many other sectors. I can say that Israel is the only modern state in the entire Arab world, and its technological strength is much superior to that of many Western countries.
From my own experience, I have found Jews to be among the most dependable and sympathetic of nations in the world. I am proud to have brotherly relations with many Jews in the world. They are simply the best human beings. During my days of extreme adversity, when even my own relatives abandoned me, my Jewish brother Dr. Benkin never left me or my family alone. Indeed, I can discover the love and affection of a Jewish mother from most of the Jews I meet. Let the world also learn from us that Muslims and Jews can not only be friends, but they can be true brothers and sisters.
Do you think that Bangladesh and the State of Israel will ever have normal bilateral relations between them?
As to bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Israel, it was very important for someone here to at least demand that. Despite the adversities, and with the blessings of God, I have done that. My newspaper is continuing to publish positive articles and news items in that direction. Relations between Dhaka and Jerusalem are now only a question of time.