He fired the first salvo in 2003 and has been sticking his thumb in Islamist eyes ever since. Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury describes himself as a “Muslim Zionist.” He is unabashedly pro-US, pro-Israel, and anti-Islamist. More importantly, he remains all of that from within the Muslim world, which he refuses to leave. I have fielded any number of asylum requests for him, and he declined them all. “Retreat is not in my vocabulary,” he says, for he believes that if he were to leave his country, his credibility would be gone, and Islamists would claim victory; a satisfaction he refuses to give them. “Bangladesh is my country,” he says. “Let the radicals leave!”
Since 2003, we have fought not only a battle of ideas but also a battle of wills with our adversaries; and the skirmishes never end. Shoaib has been imprisoned and tortured. He has been beaten, and Islamists bombed his newspaper before they and their cronies in the ruling party seized the premises. All of this happened after Shoaib published articles that exposed the rising strength of Islamist radicals in Bangladesh, urged relations with Israel, and advocated genuine interfaith dialogue based on religious equality.
In November of that year, he was about to board a plane for Bangkok and then Israel (there are no direct flights between Dhaka and Tel Aviv), agents grabbed him. Eventually, they charged him with sedition, treason, and blasphemy, which are capital offenses and could send Shoaib to the gallows.
In 2005, however, after an intense seventeen month campaign for his freedom, Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) took on his case. He summoned then Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury to his Washington office, and the three of us had a sometimes acrimonious, always difficult, hours-long meeting. As Kirk (a member of the House Appropriations Committee) describes it, we had a “full and frank discussion,” after which Dhaka agreed to free Shoaib Choudhury.
Our elation was short-lived, however, when Shamsher Chowdhury clarified that Shoaib would be freed on bail even though the ambassador had just admitted that there was no substance to the charges. To be sure, we had won the most important point: Shoaib would be free. Still, I looked up and said, “Not good enough. It’s an old and tired ruse used by tyrants,” I continued. “Free the dissident but keep the charges pending in order to silence him.” And so we argued some more until Chowdhury relented and agreed that Dhaka would drop the charges not long after Shoaib’s release.
Fortunately, his driver quickly alerted Shoaib’s brother, Sohail, who telephoned me in the United States. Shoaib’s life was in very real danger, so we determined on an immediate course of action. Sohail called Luke Zahner, Second Secretary at the US Embassy in Dhaka, and a long time supporter of Shoaib’s. Zahner, who had previously helped set up USAID’s elections support program in Iraq, notified U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Geeta Pasi.
Hoffman got to Kirk, and they set up an emergency command center in his Longworth Building office. I then called three other legislators who have been especially supportive of Shoaib: Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA). Their staffs — who had frequently worked with me on Shoaib’s case — said they would take action and coordinate further with Kirk’s office.
That done, I telephoned Bangladesh’s DC embassy and told them the following: “If I don’t receive a telephone call confirming that Shoaib has been released unharmed and soon, you’re going to have a s**t storm like you’ve never even imagined.” Within a short time, the embassy received calls from all four members of Congress mentioned above, as well as several others who they got involved. Hoffman called the Embassy’s political secretary, Sheikh Mohammed Belal on his personal cell phone, demanding action.
As they approached the three hour mark, things were turning even nastier. RAB officers told Shoaib that he could expect a steady diet of this, or even worse, unless he began working for them; something that he called “ridiculous.” Then the phone rang. The officers told Shoaib that the call came from “a high government official” ordering them to let him go. He phoned Sohail and asked him to bring him home.
Before they allowed them to go, however, Shoaib’s captors forced the pair to sign an affidavit giving RAB the power to enter their home or business at any time and for any reason; although it should be added that it had no warrant or other sort of order when its men broke into his newspaper earlier. As such, Shoaib remains in danger, especially as his legal status remains equivocal at best.
Unfortunately, they started this false persecution on the assumption that no one would care what happened to Shoaib, and many in the government still believe that we Americans have little resolve — and actually have told me that. And so they go after us. Our enemies count on this and point to success when they hear proposals to make concessions in Israel or to pull up stakes in Iraq and elsewhere. If we don’t respond, and respond with strength, they’ll continue persecuting Shoaib and others like him.