Sunday, December 16, 2007

Our inalienable right to differ

By: Maneeza Hossain
Bangladesh is a country born out of dissent. Against the tyranny of an outside power that reduced us to second-class citizens, we Bangladeshis asserted our right to difference, prosperity, and progress. We rose from the ashes as a nation deliberately burned by a vindictive colonizer to create a commonwealth that brought together the wretched of our region restoring to them dignity and decency in their means of survival. Ours has not been a full-fledged success story, yet.
These values, for generations the soul of our nation, seems to have been forgotten of late. The previous governments, while paying lip service to democratic values, ignored the central duty of recognizing dissent. Much to our disappointment, the current regime continues to crush opposition. Voices of dissent are still silenced by the state, or when attacked and abused by non-state actors, they face a resounding state silence.
Such is the voice of this particular publication, or its Editor and publisher Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury who has been recognized by many all over the world as a voice of integrity and uncompromising truth. Not in his own country.
To this day, Mr. Choudhury has to suffer the tricks of a legal system that mocks his freedom of thought. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is not alone. Women activists who challenged the status quo have been murdered. Artists and writers who expressed their rejection of facets of the political and /or social order have had to flee. Political demonstrations, a healthy expression of our vibrant democracy, are banned and forcibly repressed. It matters little whether the forces from the dark that try to silence Mr. Choudhury and other brave activists stem from the ruling order, or from a totalitarian mindset that activates radical extremists in our land. In both cases, the result is one: dissent, the right to differ, the right to be oneself, is denied. Dissent and opposition are the barometer of a healthy democracy, if ignored it can degenerate into rebellion, and if addressed properly it can often be gained back as loyal opposition. If we failed as a nation to accommodate dissent in the past, we are surely paying the price for our failure today.
No value is higher than the value of freedom. No claim for any necessity, national, social, religious, or otherwise, can supersede the obligation to respect responsible freedom. Unfortunately, as the tribulations of Shoaib Choudhury indicate, our polity has not risen to the level of acting on this non-negotiable principle. We can only hope that our society will.

Maneeza Hossain is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Right thing to do

By: Sheree Roth
I first heard the name Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury on Oct. 4, 2006 in one of the many internet newsletters that I subscribe to. By the time, I got the alert that there was a good man in trouble, Choudhury had already been charged with sedition, a capital offence in Bangladesh and had already spent 17 months in jail. He was arrested at Dhaka-Zia International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where he was scheduled to deliver a lecture on Muslim-Jewish relations.
I was taken by his words in a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed: “Islam does not endorse terrorism, the killing of innocents or even destruction of property. Under normal conditions, Muslims would not do so either. And yet so few Muslims object to what is being done in the name of their religion. Opportunists don an Islamic mask to justify their misdeeds, and our media support them and, thereby, our own impoverishment, ignorance and oppression.
Only a strong countervailing media presence will make for positive change, as our initial efforts in Bangladesh suggest. Our weekly tabloid, Weekly Blitz, is about the only place in the Muslim world where people can read positive things about Israel. ...
But our efforts are feeble and tentative compared to the great noise heard day after day from the other media giants. Muslims need to hear more voices of dissent, of reason, of decency. And a democracy like Bangladesh just might offer us a beachhead to join this epic battle.”
For a woman who has grown up in a land of freedom it is hard for me to imagine being arrested and imprisoned for advocating for dialogue. I am used to being able to speak my mind freely, meet with whoever I wish to meet, worship my God freely in a way that is comfortable to me, to have a say in selecting a leader of my choosing, to write a letter to a newspaper laying out whatever it is in my heart that day. I have that freedom and so do all my fellow countrymen – people of every nationality, color, race, gender and religion. Do we all disagree from time to time? Oh yes – Always! I constantly write letters defending Israel in the local newspapers. And many folks who both agree and disagree write back and the next day, their letters are in the newspapers. Most of us, if we found ourselves in Shoaib’s shoes, oppressed for our thoughts and for trying to speak out, if we had the opportunity to flee to a better, safer environment – would be on a jet plane in a split second, as fast as we could pack our bags. Why put up with all the difficulties if you don’t have to? Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury has had the opportunities to flee. He has friends all over the world who want to protect him. He has chosen to remain in the country that he loves, among the people that he loves, and in the beautiful religious faith that he loves and wishes for others to know.
I would tell people reading this article that all of our holy books have passages that we aren’t so proud of. We must try to learn from them. The Jewish tradition has been openly debating our holy books for centuries. For those of us who can’t get enough just arguing with our fellow Jews around the corner, or in a newspaper, we can join a Yeshiva where we can have the honor of arguing with great Rabbis who lived centuries ago. The dialogue is alive and vigorous. It leads to learning and to understanding. Well, sometimes not – but you keep trying. I have read that this tradition of independent thinking was once alive in Islam and known as "Ijtihad".
I hope that Shoaib Choudhury will be able to help his people in Bangladesh achieve comfortableness with free dialogue. Dialogue is the way to learning about each other. We must share this planet with each other; we may as well get along. Talking to each other is the first step; listening to each other is the second but more important step. We of many faiths, whose religious traditions go back centuries, have so many stories and so much wisdom to offer each other. We may worship our creator in different ways but we have so much in common. We all want a safe, peaceful world in which to bring up our children.
Salah Uddin Shoaib’ Choudhury’s only crime was that he wanted to reach out to people of another religious faith and build bridges of understanding. I appeal to the authorities in Bangladesh and to those who have made life so difficult for Shoaib and his family, to please allow him the freedom of speech and press that we in the West are living with and wrestling with every day. It’s difficult, it’s exhilarating, it’s educational, sometimes it’s gratifying and sometimes it hurts – but it’s the only way. An American judge, the late Justice Louis D. Brandeis described the essence of free speech: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is asking for us to begin the process of learning about each other. He should not be called a criminal for this. Please set him free. It’s the human thing to do, it’s the religious thing to do and it’s the right thing to do.

Shoaib's Struggle

By: Ami Isseroff
November 29 marks the fourth anniversary of the fateful night on which Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury was arrested on his way to Israel, to deliver a talk about the role of the media in peace and dialogue efforts. I remember how excited he was about attending this conference, and building ties of peace and brotherhood between our countries.
It was not to be. Shoaib Choudhury 's arrest began a long and Kafkaesque nightmare of trumped-up court charges, a degrading and dangerous term in jail, violence, threats of violence and vilification in the Arab and Muslim media. All this for the crime of wanting to make peace. Unfortunately, in certain societies, advocating terror, war and hate are not crimes, but peacemaking is a crime.
The fanatics who oppose peace claim that they are sure of their way, and that the masses are all behind them. They represent the "popular will" supposedly. If that is so, then why do they need to put the opponents of peace in jail? Why are they afraid of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury?
The "crime" that Shoaib Choudhury wanted to commit was to make peace. The same "crime" brought the representatives of the Arab states to Annapolis Maryland this past week. Should they too be jailed? But Shoaib is really being persecuted because he is fighting for freedom in Bangladesh, against those who want to extinguish it.
One day Bangladesh will be really free, and one day all Muslim societies will be free. That freedom is being bought now by courageous people like Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, who dare to stand up to benighted fanatics. It is being bought at a dear price. When the people of Bangladesh, and in fact, when all Muslims, look back on Shoaib's long and lonely struggle, I believe they will understand what a great service he did for Bangladesh and for Muslims everywhere, by lighting the torch of freedom in the darkest night of fanaticism. It will happen, if not in five years, then in fifty.
One day, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury will be a national hero in his country, as he is admired today in other countries that value freedom. I dearly hope that this will be the last anniversary of Shoaib's nightmare, that his ordeal and that of his family will be finished, and that the next year will see him a free man, his case closed, and his cause vindicated.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury gets MMF Award

Monaco Media Forum Prize 2007 was awarded to Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, the founder and editor of the “Weekly Blitz”, a Bangladeshi newspaper, which editorial line confronts religious hatred and openly urges Islam to embrace peaceful co-existence with other religions. Mr. Choudhury has been one of the utmost advocates of peaceful dialogue with the Christian and Jewish worlds, not hesitating to put his own life into jeopardy for the sake of the cause he chose to stand for.
After a full day of intense technology and business related debates, HSH Prince Albert II reminded the 300 media leaders, that the media could not be regarded as just any industry because “freedom of expression and its corollary freedom of the press is one of the most fundamental human rights”. Furthermore, H.S.H. Prince Albert II stressed the need for the media community to reward those who have succeeded in using the media for the greatest benefice of Mankind, such as Mr. Choudhury.
Mr. Choudhury’s nomination was the result of a one-year selection and reflection conducted by the Prize Jury headed by Peace Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel and composed of some of the most commendable individuals in the field of journalism: Marvin Kalb, Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Fellow, at the Shorenstein Center, Gwen Lister, South African-born Namibian journalist, editor of the “The Namibian”, and winner of International Women's Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award” in 2004, Joyce Barnathan, President & CEO of International Center for Journalists, Monique Atlan, a most prominent figure of French TV journalism, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, Editor Newsweekly Le Point and one of France most well know journalists, Roger-Pol Droit, author-researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research/philosopher and John Rossant, former editor BusinessWeek Europe, Vice President Communications & Public Affairs, Publicis Groupe.
Monaco Media Award is the highest honor of the Republic of Monaco, introduced this year to honor individuals and organizations for their outstanding contributions in defending human rights.
In the award lecture, HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco praised Shoaib Choudhury for his outstanding and courageous role in promoting interfaith understanding as well confronting religious hatred. Award Committee jury Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel said, first Monaco Media Award has gone to the hand of the most courageous journalist in South Asia for his extra-ordinary courage and commitment in ensuring global peace.
The award ceremony took place at Hotel De Paris with a large number of invited guests.
About The Monaco Media Forum:
Chaired by H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, the Monaco Media Forum is co-chaired by Barry Diller, James Murdoch, Maurice Lévy, Emilio Azcárraga Jean, Jacques Attali, and Silvio Scaglia. This event is a unique, invitation-only platform spanning interlocking realms of media, finance and advertising through local, regional and global perspectives, with particular emphasis on Europe and the Middle East.
Monaco Media Forum organizes a grand carnival of media personnel in Monte Carlo each year, which is attended by hundreds of media moguls from different countries. The event is gradually becoming one of the most important events of the media people, where they get the chance of meeting colleagues while exchanging views with the objective of adding more dynamism in various media.Weekly Blitz editor earlier received Freedom to Write Award from PENUSA in 2005, Moral Courage Award from American Jewish Committee in 2006 along with a number of awards in Bangladesh.