Sunday, December 16, 2007

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.

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