We Must Each Save Shoaib

Posted: Nov 23, 2007 12:01 AM
We Must Each Save Shoaib

I recently came across an unread e-mail from Richard L. Benkin, the American champion of Bangladeshi journalist Saleh Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. Choudhury is the fearless Muslim newspaper editor who was arrested by Bangladeshi authorities in November 2003 as he prepared to board a flight en route to Israel, where he was planning to deliver an address promoting peaceable relations between Muslims and Jews.

Now, at this point in the column, I realize your average Thanksgiving feast-digesting Reader (R) is probably more inclined to scan holiday ads than tough it out here. So without giving anything away, I'll just mention, FYI, that today's offering does end up as holiday fare.

R: Fine. Get on with it.

OK. Back to Choudhury's arrest.

For his "crime" (Bangladesh doesn't recognize Israel) and his writings (Choudhury has denounced the rise of jihadism in Bangladesh and has called for better relations with Jews and Israel), he was accused of treason, sedition and blasphemy, all capital crimes in Bangladesh.

R: Bangladesh. Bangladesh ... isn't that where that terrible tsunami or cyclone or whatever just happened?

Yes, and more on that below. (Clearly, your average R. is now experiencing guilt pangs over your average Thanksgiving -- more food and fun than disaster victims will know -- and contemplates whipping out the checkbook to send relief money to one of the charities local papers are now listing.)

R: Just make your point.

Don't get snippy. Choudhury has since suffered beatings, torture and solitary confinement for 17 months. He was barred from his mother's funeral. The offices of his newspaper, the Weekly Blitz, have been bombed. Last year, he was savaged by a mob, leaving him with a fractured ankle. According to the Jerusalem Post, the police refused to allow him to press charges against his attackers. His Weekly Blitz Web site reported that his assailants included leaders from Jasas, the "cultural wing" of the ruling Bangladeshi National Party.

Choudhury's plight hasn't been all bleak. He has won the political support of Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Benkin, his citizen-defender, who is Jewish, has pleaded his case high and low, helping his "Muslim brother" -- that's what Benkin calls him -- garner international recognition. Such developments led to Choudhury's release from prison in 2005, although charges remain pending.

Even so, Benkin's occasional updates have seemed confident that activism would ultimately persuade the Bangladeshi government to cease its monstrous prosecution. Earlier this year, things were really looking up when the House of Representatives passed a resolution introduced by Kirk and co-sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., calling on Bangladesh to drop the capital charges against Choudhury. After all, the United States provides $60 million a year in foreign aid and the resolution passed 409-1.

R: Who was the one stinker?

Rep. Ron Paul.

R: Figures.

Nothing has happened. Well, one thing. Things have gotten worse. Recent court maneuvers indicate Choudhury may soon be re-incarcerated. This, Benkin writes, "brings home starkly how his freedom -- perhaps his life -- remain in danger. But each one of you can do something to help Shoaib and the cause of justice."

And this is the exact point at which I realized the case made a fitting post-Thanksgiving column. For what Benkin is hoping for isn't more media or calls to Congress. He is hoping "each of us" raises this matter with the leading importers of Bangladeshi textiles -- Wal-Mart, The Gap, Nike, VF Corp. Phillip-Van Heusen. He is hoping good, old-fashioned American dollar-power can accomplish what human rights activism has not.

And what are we, post-Thanksgiving, if not consumers? With the holiday shopping season here, the Choudhury case cries out to Americans to hold themselves accountable for their shopping dollars, and not just to the bottom line. In this particular instance, the question becomes whether we, as consumers, should continue to buy Bangladeshi and support the kind of government that basically considers interfaith dialogue a capital offense.

R: But doesn't that just hurt "the people"? And what about that devastating storm?

These are important questions. I almost didn't the write this column today because of them. Holding the Bangladeshi government accountable for human rights violations just as Bangladeshi people are suffering (again) is a tough sell. But I don't think the one negates the other. That is, charity will to flow to Bangladesh as generous peoples (very notably, the US of A) respond to crisis. But Shoaib Choudhury's plight tells us this is not enough. Simple charity is not enough to make the turkey go down.

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