L’Infâme: Sham in Bangladesh
The Case of Salah Choudhury, “Seditious” Journalist
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, October 20, 2006
The Middle at Jewlicious alerts us to the case of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, the Bangladeshi journalist savaged, and soon to be tried, for the unspeakable crime of trying to bring a little civility to the debate about Israel. A little background. Choudhury is the editor of an English-language newspaper called The Weekly Blitz. In 2003, he published articles favorable to Israel. He’s also been critical of Islamic extremists. Bangladesh has no diplomatic ties with Israel, nor does it have, or allow, cultural ties with Israel. Choudhury was blacklisted for his stint and, as a New York Times editorial put it back then, “thrown out of a private television company.” In November 2003, he was heading for a cultural conference in Tel Aviv called “Bridges Through Culture.” He had been recently named, according to Reporters Without Borders, “head of the Bangladeshi branch of the International Forum for Literature and Culture for Peace.” He would have been the first Bangladeshi journalist to speak publicly in Israel.
He was instead arrested at the airport in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, charged with being a spy and imprisoned. He was able to go back to work after seventeen months and after being tortured. But charges of sedition and espionage stood. In July 2006, Blitz offices were bombed. The police had been warned of the threats, made by telephone on June 29 by a militant Islamic organization. The police “mislaid” the complaint. Two bombs were also found inside the office, unexploded. Choudhury was to have his court date, such as it was, earlier this week. On October 5, the Jerusalem Post reported, “ a mob stormed the premises of Choudhury’s newspaper and beat him, fracturing his ankle. They also looted cash that was kept in the company safe. No arrests were made, and Bangladeshi police refused to allow Choudhury to file charges against his attackers.” (See Choudhury's own account of the attack as he described it in his weekly.)
In 2003, when the Times editorialized about his case, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the United Nations in New York took exception to the editorial and promised that “the legal and judicial system in the country, which is seen worldwide as being free, independent and fair, will determine the case justly.” When Choudhury goes to court in November, his defense attorney will not be allowed to call his own witnesses to testify in Choudhury’s defense. Only the prosecution, ripping a page from America ’s Guantanamo law book, gets to do that. For his words in Blitz, Choudhury faces the death penalty. Bangladesh nevertheless calls itself, in the words of its ambassador, “one of the largest democracies in the world” — right next to such shining beacons of democracy as Pakistan, Turkey and, of course, Iraq. At least the American State Department isn’t taking this one too indifferently. It’s sending an observer to Choudhury’s trial, if it can be called such. But what credibility has the United States got anymore in these matters, when just 48 hours ago President Bush signed into law an order ending certain prisoners’ rights to have their cases heard in court, prisoners who haven’t even had the fortune of being charged, and who’ve been held nameless and futureless for going on five years? Choudhury is on his own but for public opinion.
Think what you will about Israel—and readers of this site know well that my esteem of Israel’s policies ranks somewhere between my esteem for the Tamil Tigers and the Bush Junta—but that says nothing about my unqualified belief in the idea, necessity and legitimacy of Israel as a state; and even that is secondary to my belief in the notion of dialogue with Israel, under any circumstance, between any parties (that goes for so-called terrorists, incidentally: in that case parties on both side of the table would be in mutually recognizable company).
Think what you will about Islam, too, for that matter: when it comes to its fundamentalist strains, which these days are hard to top in the vileness and murderousness department, there’s no room for sitting still and letting it be under banners of la difference. Fanaticism (l’infâme) in whatever form ought to be not only condemned but actively opposed, as Choudhury actively opposed its obvious rise in Bangladesh. That country, far from being one of the world’s largest democracies, is turning into one of the world’s hubs of political violence, thanks in no small part to the influence of its militantly Islamic, and political, bands in government. When outward bound terrorists tire of making do with Afghanistan ’s scrags and Iraq ’s dust, they’ll be turning to Bangladesh ’s verdant, if soggy, fields for their training and hiding grounds. Choudhury’s fate, in sum, is at the heart of the country’s crossroad. Free him, and the country holds out some hope of beating back the fanatics. Condemn him, and Bangladesh might as well be written off as one more loss to what civility it might, in the odd ambassador’s imagination, have clung to. And all this over what? Over words. Not even inflaming words, but words that attempt to see with clarity what zealotry blinds and severs.
“Speech,” Thomas Mann wrote, “is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact. It is silence which isolates.” The last thing Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury’s words warrant at the moment is our silence.