Sunday, June 27, 2010

An ally on the brink : Choudhury's pro-Israel Bangladeshi newspaper is in danger of erasure

Seth Mandel


June 25, 2010

Reading the reports on the state of newspapers today, and following the New Media revolution, you couldn't be blamed for thinking advertising and the riddle of the online paywall are the media's most pressing challenges.

Such is life, and worry, in a free country.

In reality, while newspapers are struggling in the West (from 2007-2009, the industry's revenue dropped by 30 percent in the U.S., according to the OECD), journalists elsewhere in the world -- especially in repressive states -- put their lives on the line. It is this combination -- falling revenue and the constant threat of death -- that has pushed Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury's newspaper to the brink.

Choudhury's paper, The Weekly Blitz , is published out of Bangladesh. When it was founded in 2003, advertising revenue wasn't an issue. But as soon as the Blitz started publishing pro-Israel editorials, local businesses in this Muslim country immediately started shunning the paper. Later that year, Choudhury was arrested at the airport heading to a writer's conference in Tel Aviv, tortured for 10 days, and kept in solitary confinement for 17 months at a Dhaka prison.
He is still on trial for sedition, blasphemy, and treason, for which he would be executed if found guilty.

Choudhury speaks eloquently about the fight against radical Islam and the moral imperative of supporting Israel. He is an unabashed Zionist, which many of our readers -- who filled a room in November 2009 to hear him speak -- know well.

In that speech, Choudhury mentioned that the police protection he was finally granted after the intervention of the U.S. Congress -- most notably Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) -- has been removed. As if on cue, six weeks after Choudhury gave that speech in New Brunswick, armed robbers broke into his home. The commotion woke the neighbors, and the men fled.

Such incidents have become routine, unfortunately, though Choudhury refuses to flee Bangladesh or convert out of Islam. "I remain important to the Muslims because I am a Muslim," Choudhury said back in November. "The moment I become an ex-Muslim, it makes no difference. If you want to reform a class, you need to be a member of the club. I am a member of Islam and I demand a reform in Islam... preaching hate is not the Islam that I follow; the Islam I follow is where I can embrace a Jew as a brother."

He has always been frank about his Zionism. "Today, Israel is suffering, tomorrow the world will suffer," he told me when we first met. Israel, he said, "is a land blessed by God. And God will protect his land."

And it goes without saying that bravery has never been a weakness for him. But now he is in the position of needing our help. It can't be easy for him to ask for it, but it should be easy for us to answer the call. A wealthy businessman in Bangladesh recently offered to buy Choudhury's paper for a generous sum, but Choudhury knows the man's intention: to silence one of the few pro-Israel, pro-Western voices in the East. Choudhury declined, choosing principles over money.
"But, now, our very sustainability has become almost impossible," Choudhury wrote in a message to readers. "Each month, we are losing [a] huge amount of money in continuing the print and online edition of this newspaper. For any newspaper, it is absolutely impossible to sustain without any advertisement revenue." He included the email address: ediblitz [at] at which he could be contacted by those willing to help.

Choudhury will get no help whatsoever from his fellow countrymen, who at best ignore him and at worst wish the government would end his troublemaking once and for all. So he needs the West to step up to the plate. Jewish organizations should do what Choudhury's close friend Richard Benkin did when he first heard Choudhury was in danger. Benkin references the one-word response Moses gave God when he was called from the burning bush: Hineni -- here I am.
Advertising revenue would be great, though a grant would be even better. We are blessed with philanthropists aplenty, and Israel has no more courageous defender than Choudhury. This is the first time he has ever made such an appeal. It has been two weeks since Choudhury published that request, and, he told me, "the situation is still unchanged. Weekly Blitz is in the very worst economic constraint."

"Today, I stand before you, the people of Bangladesh and in fact the entire Muslim world as a witness; a witness that Israelis want above all else peace and justice," Choudhury was to say in that speech prepared, but never delivered, to the writer's conference in Tel Aviv. "And those who spread false rumors to the contrary around the world, and especially in Muslim countries, are, frankly, either deluded or dishonest. I also stand before you perhaps as a living contradiction: a Zionist, a defender of Israel, and a devout, practicing Muslim, living in a Muslim country."

Israel needs such fire more than anything; yet this flame is in danger of being snuffed out. "Please pray for us," Choudhury told me this week. We should, and we will. But if all we can do is pray, we haven't done enough.

Seth Mandel is the managing editor of The Jewish State.

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