JTA / June 10, 2012
By Larry Luxner
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury sat at the café of the five-star Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in downtown Dhaka — capital of the third-largest Muslim nation on Earth — stridently proclaiming his love for Israel and the Jewish people.
“I am a Zionist and a friend of Israel,” he told JTA, in a voice loud enough to be heard by hotel guests and local businessmen sipping their afternoon tea at nearby tables.
But nobody paid any attention — and that in itself, says Choudhury, represents enormous progress in the impoverished People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
“Before 2003, you could not utter the word Israel in this country,” the devout Muslim said in a lengthy interview here. “Now we celebrate Rosh Hashana, and all the Jewish community in Dhaka participates. Even in some Bangladeshi media, they now allow positive articles on Israel. And I am more vocal than ever before.”
Choudhury, 46, is publisher of the English-language Weekly Blitz — one of hundreds of newspapers in this overcrowded, predominantly Muslim nation of 160 million. He’s also a fraud, say many Jews in the United States and Israel who once supported him.
On Nov. 29, 2003, half a year after he began publishing his anti-jihadist tabloid, the media mogul and father of two was arrested at Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Bangkok with connections to Tel Aviv.
“I was tortured with electric shocks. They put nails in my ear. They broke my kneecap with a hockey stick. I was interrogated for 15 days and not allowed to bathe,” he said. “They told me, ‘confess you’re a Zionist spy. Otherwise, why do you support Judaism?’ I said that I’m a good Muslim, and a good Muslim must trust the Jews and Christians. And I’m proud of that.”
On Jan. 24, 2004, barely two months after his initial arrest, Choudhury was charged with sedition, treason and blasphemy. Eventually the sedition charge was dropped, and he was freed on bail in April 2005 — though his office was later firebombed, and he was beaten by mobs and at one point briefly kidnapped by members of Bangladesh’s feared Rapid Action Battalion.
Richard Belkin, a Chicago doctor and Jewish activist, heard about Choudhury’s plight and petitioned Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) to intervene on the journalist’s behalf. In February 2007, a resolution co-sponsored by Kirk and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) and demanding that Bangladesh drop all remaining charges against Choudhury passed the House 409-1.
The unlikely pro-Israel crusader quickly became the darling of the literary world.
Brenda West, writing in the online New English Review, noted that “many newspapers and institutions sang his praises with weekly articles. The Wall Street Journal carried admiring articles about him, as did many other newspapers, and bloggers flooded the Internet with their awe-stricken appreciation of what looked like Choudhury’s dedication to Western humanistic principles.”
Yet soon after his release on bail, allegations began surfacing that Choudhury was a ruthless con artist with a criminal past — and a pseudo-journalist guilty of plagiarism who had strong Islamist connections before he inexplicably became an anti-Islamist.
Some have even suggested that Choudhury may actually be an agent posing as a friend of the Jews in order to raise money for Islamic fundamentalist organizations.
Belkin, who runs a website that exposes alleged Muslim ethnic cleansing of minority Hindus in Bangladesh, hasn’t spoken to Choudhury in several years, for reasons he declined to explain. Nevertheless, he publicly expresses nothing but admiration for the man he helped rescue.
“While Shoaib and I are no longer working together nor have we been in contact for some time, he retains a place in my heart for his personal courage and for the ground he broke,” Belkin told JTA in an email from Chicago. “Shoaib and I have taken separate paths since our struggles with Islamists and their water carriers, but those efforts revealed a man who willingly put himself in danger for a principle.”
Other Jews who previously stood up for Choudhury are less kind.
In March 2011, Aryeh Yosef Gallin, founder and president of the Root and Branch Association — a nonprofit group that promotes cooperation between the state of Israel and other nations — expelled Choudhury from its Islam-Israel Fellowship in March 2011 after reports surfaced that the Bangladeshi had bilked “emotionally vulnerable single Jewish ladies” out of tens of thousands of dollars.
And West, a self-described “Jewish woman and patriotic American who became very involved in counter-jihad work after 9/11,” told JTA that “subsequent research, easily available to anyone who bothered to do a little bit of reading, showed that he was a total fraud with criminal ties. He had swindled not just two ardent Jewish supporters but everyone in the Zionist and counter-jihad movement who believed in him.”
Many of the claims Choudhury made in our Dhaka interview do seem farfetched, to say the least. For example, he insisted that his country, known as East Pakistan until 1971, has at least 5,000 Jews — even though nearly all online references speak of a Jewish community numbering no more than a few hundred.
In a further stretch of the imagination, Choudhury told us that “you can now find Torahs in every bookstore in Bangladesh,” and that the 2,200-square-foot building facing Purana Paltan Street which supposedly housed Dhaka’s only synagogue sits on land now worth $10 million.
Yet a plaque on the aging structure clearly identifies it as a Masonic lodge built in 1910. Nowhere are Hebrew inscriptions, Stars of David or anything remotely Jewish visible from either the outside or inside.
Choudhury prints 25,000 copies of the Weekly Blitz; it sells for 5 taka, the equivalent of 7 U.S. cents. He boasts that his newspaper — “the most influential in the Muslim world” — was the first in Bangladesh to write about Islamic NGOs operating in the country under the patronage of al-Qaeda.
“Not a single article of ours has ever been protested by the government,” he said. “This means we have total credibility.”
Despite Choudhury’s insistence that his detractors’ accusations are all false, it doesn’t look like his legal troubles will be going away anytime soon.
“The court continues to postpone my trial, so I have to go to court every month, then they give me a new date,” he said. “They don’t have any evidence, so they can’t continue the trial. But they won’t drop the charges either, because the government fears that would annoy the Islamists and antisemites in this country.”