Appeasement of Islamists Adherence to Injustice Send US-Bangladesh Relations into Decline
By Dr. Richard L. Benkin - Asian Tribune Correspondent
Washington, 03 November, (Asiantribune.com): In early 2005, Bangladesh sent a new ambassador to the United States, Shamsher M. Chowdhury. Chowdhury arrived with a few critical items on his agenda. One was to convince US leaders that Bangladesh is a â€œmoderate Muslim country.â€ Another was to convince them that it is also an "ally in the war on terror." The third was to secure a US-Bangladesh Free Trade Agreement (FTA). For more than a year and a half, Chowdhury ran all over Washington trying to make the first two points and secure the FTA; but in the end, all his efforts ended in failure. Perhaps the sad results were due to the transparent mendacity of his government; perhaps they were due in part to Chowdhuryâ€™s poor counsel about the Americans. Regardless of which, Chowdhury left Washington last week without securing any of his goals.
One of Chowdhuryâ€™s greatest challenges was to generate American awareness of Bangladesh; the American media had barely even mentioned Bangladesh for decades. Ironically, it was a series of Bangladeshi officialsâ€™ blunders regarding a case they would rather have kept quiet that propelled Bangladesh to the attention of US media and lawmakersâ€”and in a negative light. The ongoing persecution of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor and publisher of Dhakaâ€™s Weekly Blitz, exposed the underlying dishonest of claims by the Bangladeshi government.
Shoaib was arrested and tortured by Bangladeshi authorities after he angered radicals in the country by publishing articles warning about their growing power (which they had been attempting to keep under wraps), urging Bangladesh to recognize Israel (for the benefit of his nationâ€™s people as well as to promote interfaith understanding), and for advocating genuine interfaith dialogue and religious equality. The radicals, too, were hoping to keep their incessant activity in Bangladesh below the Americansâ€™ radar, but Choudhury threatened their strategy. Thus it was no surprise that security police had him under surveillance and arrested him as he was about to board a flight to Thailand and from there to Tel Aviv. Shoaib freely admits that his intended trip to Israel violated Bangladeshi passport regulations, but that violation is punishable by at most an eight dollar fine and perhaps thirty days in jail. But after holding Choudhury for weeks without and charge and for incessant â€œinterrogation,â€ Begum Khaleda Ziaâ€™s Bangladesh National Party (BNP)â€™s government charged Shoaib with Sedition and Blasphemyâ€”a capital offense.
When I first tried to interest US and EU media and lawmakers in the case through late 2003 and 2004, I ran into the same obstacles that Shamsher Chowdhury faced: a general wall of indifference about Bangladesh. My fight to free Shoaib and gain attention for his plight was often a lonely one, and I was grateful for coverage by any blog or small publication.
This October alone, however, saw major US papers including The Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and New York Sun cover the case and highlight Bangladeshâ€™s human rights violations. In the coming weeks, more US media are planning to cover the case, which is also beginning to see coverage in Europe and elsewhere.
Something has changedâ€”drastically. Recently, a publicist with ties to major news media asked me if I could send her my â€œpitchâ€ to the media. "Pitch?" I responded. "I have no pitch. They have been coming to me." All of this coverage highlights the worst of Bangladesh: the rise of radicals, the threat of an Islamist takeover, persecution of Shoaib and other journalists, persecution of religious minorities, and the absence of the rule of law in the way Bangladeshi courts are operating. All of these negative images are filling a general void in American and othersâ€™ impressions of Bangladesh. They are also making statements by the Bangladeshi ambassador over the last year and a half that Bangladesh is fighting radicals and building a free society seem comically false.
None of this would have happened if the Bangladeshi government had been honest with American lawmakers. Moreover, US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) made clear to Chowdhury and others that the US would not ignore Shoaibâ€™s ongoing persecution. When Chowdhury and other government officials demurred that they were "afraid of how the radicals would react," they even hit on a convoluted process by which they would force the charges to be dropped by appearing inept and unprepared even as they brought the charge again and again. Unfortunately, when it came time for an actual ruling, the Bangaldeshis found that their pattern of appeasement left a judge with ties to an Islamist radical group having sole discretion to ignore their efforts. And he did.
A furious Bangladesh Home Minister, Lutfuzzamen Babar told Chowdhury to stonewall when he told of significant American pressure on this. He told Chowdhury to blame Shoaibâ€™s attorney, but his protests fell on deaf ears. A year and a half of false assurances and outright lies had left American lawmakers skeptical of any such claims. Relations between governments are possible only when the parties expect each othersâ€™ promises will be kept; and with that deterioration so have deteriorated US-Bangladeshi relations.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens was the first to tie the $63 million in annual US aid to Bangladesh with action to drop the admittedly false charges against Shoaib. The Washington Times drew an even stronger association, and now formal action is being contemplated among some members of Congress. Several have insinuated as much in formal letters to the Bangladeshis and others. Even the US State Department, which only a few months ago supported the Bangladesh government, recently issued a stern rebuke over human rights violations, appeasement, and specifically over its persecution of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury; the media are taking note. And all of it could have been avoided if the BNP government would have taken swift action to rectify its false persecution at a time when it could have been done so quietly.
To make matters worse for the Bangladeshis, these events have forced the countryâ€™s radicals to â€œcome out of the closet.â€ The judge persecuting Shoaib recently said that he is not interested in evidence but wants Shoaib punished for â€œpraising Christianity and Judaism.â€ Even the High Court refused even to entertain a writ to disqualify judges with ties to radical parties, informally chiding the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association, which brought the suit, for doing so with â€œan Israeli spyâ€ (i.e., Shoaib). It shouted Bangladeshi approval of and supports for the growing power of radicals in its government. These radicals have openly stated their commitment to overturning Bangladeshi law and democracy and implementing Shariaâ€”even on approximately 25,000,000 non-Muslim Bangladeshis, most of them Hindu. A recent session of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was devoted entirely to abuses in Bangladesh.
The US Congress resumes on November 13, the next court date in Shoaibâ€™s trial. Congressional sources promise action that day on the matter. With the governmentâ€™s bumbling and injustice in Shoaibâ€™s case, Americans are beginning to form a negative impression of Bangladesh where one previously did not exist. That and the prospect of a radical Bangladesh have, ominously, led some Americans to wonder if US importers would do well to reduce or eliminate Bangladeshi imports. Such murmurs will grow louder if Bangladesh does not act to drop the charges against Shoaib and get a handle on its other human rights abuses. The interim caretaker government, which has now assumed power is the first (and perhaps last) Bangladeshi government free of radical involvement. It might offer the people of Bangladesh their best hope of avoiding economic disaster and more importantly, let them take back their nation and secure the safety of all their fellow citizens.
- Asian Tribune -