Growing Islamist Extremism in Moderate, Non-Arab Countries Must Be Confronted, Bangladeshi Activist Urges

by JINSA Editorial Assistant Raeefa Shams.

by JINSA Editorial Assistant Raeefa Shams.

Former Bangladeshi political prisoner Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a man with a mission – to spread the message that four out of five Muslims do not live in the Middle East and that the United States must pay close attention to the rising tide of Islamist extremism in moderate Muslim countries if it is to prevent the radicalization of their populations. Choudhury, recipient of PEN USA’s 2005 “Freedom to Write Award”, spoke to JINSA soon after delivering a speech this summer in Washington, DC to the Human Rights Congress for Bangladeshi Minorities, a worldwide organization dedicated to preventing discrimination against minority groups and protecting political freedoms.

Bangladesh is home to the world’s third largest Muslim population and was described by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher as recently as last year as a “traditionally moderate and tolerant country”

But Choudhury and others critical of the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalist extremism in Bangladesh have been the target of an ongoing campaign by Bangladeshi Islamists, both in and out of the government. Choudhury has spoken out against the Islamists from the beginning. Last year he told The Wall Street Journal, “When I began my newspaper, [The Weekly Blitz], in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel … In Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the world’s realities.”

“There is hardly a secular aspect of Bangladeshi society that hasn’t been infiltrated by Islamists,” Choudhury said.

In the political arena, radical Muslim parties have attained power gradually, gaining more and more seats in parliament until they become an essential part of any political coalition. Maneeza Hossain, manager of democracy programs at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explained in a March 2006 National Review article that the attractiveness of radical ideologies to many in Bangladesh reflects the failure of the two main political parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League, to offer genuine democratic reforms and economic growth. “The rise of Islamism is not a reflection of ignorance, but a result of disenchantment with the hollow discourse of democracy adopted by the political class against a background of corruption and economic disparity,” Hossain wrote.

Corruption Opens Door to Political Parties Affiliated with Extremist Religious Movements

Islamist actions, on the other hand, are seen as untainted by corruption, a mainstay of political life in Bangladesh, regularly ranked as the world’s most corrupt country by Transparency International. Orphans are enrolled in the more than 64,000 madrassas in the country, and constituencies are provided with funds from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, to build mosques and hospitals, helping Islamism in its many forms to gain further roots.

The efforts of the two main political parties in combating this growing radicalism have been inadequate at best. Instead of continuing the established Bangladeshi practice of a separation between mosque and state, both parties have courted the Islamists. The many concessions made by both parties to gain the support of Islamists and their sympathizers has, among its many effects, increased the use of religious rhetoric in mainstream political discourse. Disturbingly, those who stand against the Islamists are branded as anti-Muslim, with even the country’s constitution labeled as “Christian” by some.

Both mainstream parties are guilty of this complacency and accommodation, but, according to Hossain, it is the BNP that has formed an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islam, the dominant public Islamist party.

The interim government, formed according to a constitutional directive in October 2006 several months before national elections, retained power in January 2007 after scheduled polls were cancelled and emergency rule imposed amid violent street protests between the feuding political parties. But it, too, has not yet focused on combating the influence of radical Islam and their “poison of religious hatred”, choosing instead to crack down only on widespread governmental corruption.

When all public political party activity was banned in March 2007 as part of the emergency rule, mosque sermons and religious street demonstrations continued unabated. In a February 2007 article in the Providence Journal, Hossain described this as a “further consolidation of Islamism”, since “denying political activists the ability to practice secular politics is inviting them to join the brand of ‘social’ action that the Islamists espouse,” adding that “Islamism unchecked and unbalanced by genuine democratic alternatives paves the way to jihadism.”

Choudhury’s own experience attests to this growing influence of Islamists in Bangladeshi politics.

In the spirit of religious tolerance, he began publishing articles sympathetic to Israel soon after he began The Weekly Blitz in 2003, leading to contacts with Jewish and Israeli writers over the Internet. Government agents arrested him in November 2003 as he was about to depart the country en route to Tel Aviv, where he was to make a speech to the Hebrew Writers’ Association on how the media can foster world peace. His crime? In attempting to travel to Israel, Choudhury had violated Bangladesh’s Passport Act, which forbids citizens from visiting countries (such as Israel and Taiwan) with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations.
“All of the major newspapers are affiliated with the political parties.”

Though violations of the Passport Act typically result in a nominal fine, Choudhury was taken into police custody and, as he tells it, blindfolded, beaten, and interrogated continually for ten days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was an Israeli spy. Choudhury spent the next 16 months, without trial in solitary confinement in a Dhaka jail, where he was denied medical treatment for his glaucoma.

Choudhury was released in 2005 after strong pressure from U.S. Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Chicago-area human rights activist Richard L. Benkin, a close friend of Choudhury, who had taken up his cause worldwide. In March 2007, the U.S. Congress passed, 409-1, House Resolution 64, urging the Bangladeshi government to drop all pending charges against Choudhury. The government has thus far reneged on its promise, made multiple times, to drop the admittedly false charges, which Bangladeshi officials, such as Home Secretary Lutfuzamman Babar and former ambassador to the U.S. Shamshur Chowdhury [no relation], have acknowledged are maintained only to appease local Islamists.

Choudhury also confirmed the collusion between the BNP and the Islamists, saying that several BNP officials were behind the fabricated charges against him, including former Home Secretary Omar Farouk, a member of Jamaat-e-Islam’s advisory group.

In addition, Choudhury pointed out that the Bangladeshi police and the judiciary are particularly susceptible to influence. In September 2006, a judge with Islamist ties ordered his case continued, despite the government’s original reluctance, on the grounds that Choudhury had hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and spoiling the image of Bangladesh worldwide. In October 2006, the police detail that had been posted to The Weekly Blitz‘s offices since a July bombing mysteriously disappeared, and the next day the offices were ransacked and Choudhury was badly beaten by a mob. When he lodged a formal complaint with the police, they responded by issuing an arrest warrant for him.

The media, while more interested in criticizing Islamic extremism than they used to be, are still problematic. They are “all biased against America and Israel,” Choudhury said, noting with disappointment that with few exceptions, Bangladeshi journalists hopped on the bandwagon against him, reporting “total fabrications as fact” against the alleged “Zionist spy”. Another issue is that all of the major newspapers are affiliated with the political parties, which Choudhury describes as being “open appeasers” in regards to Islamic extremism. There is even a new TV station, Diganta – meaning “horizon” – run by the Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islam.

A Call to the U.S. Government to Confront Bangladeshi Government

Choudhury suggested that to counter the rising menace of fundamentalism in Bangladesh, the U.S. must hold the government accountable for its actions. If it is indeed as moderate and anti-Islamist as it claims, it will answer for the trumped-up charges against him. Though he conceded that there is nothing America can do to directly affect human rights violations and restrictions on press freedoms in Bangladesh, Choudhury emphasized that it could use its economic weight as leverage and “think twice” before giving development aid to Bangladesh or buying its textile products, instead making these economic benefits contingent on effectively fighting Islamist influences.

The U.S. government, he said, should also press the Bangladeshi government to make a specific justification for their non-recognition of Israel. Opposing Israel as a way of declaring solidarity with Muslim nations is not enough, Choudhury said, since many Muslim nations have diplomatic or economic relations with Israel. In short, the problem is not Islam – it is Islamism.

But Choudhury maintains optimistic that his message will eventually prevail in Bangladesh, despite his grim appraisals. “My target audience is both the extremists and the moderates,” he said.

Due to his ordeal in Bangladesh, Choudhury has been asked many times whether he would like to relocate. His answer is a defiant no. “It is the Islamists who should get out of Bangladesh,” he said. “Let them relocate to Iran or Saudi Arabia.”