Back in 2003, in Bangladesh, a Muslim-dominated country, the word Israel or even Jew was considered taboo. The poison of antisemitism and Holocaust denial were very much existing in societies. For this reason, even non-Muslims were either shy or unwilling to speak out and say NO to such heinous culture of religious hatred. Bangladesh unfortunately is amongst few other nations, which not only refrains from recognizing the Jewish State, but its passport bars travel to Israel.
During my childhood when I was growing in a notorious environment of antisemitism and religious hatred, my father used to repeatedly ask me never to accept such cruel tendencies of our society. He had always asked me to look into the world and find excellent qualities in Jews. He also had repeatedly reminded me: every conscious human being must confront Holocaust denial and antisemitism.
When I grew up and joined a Russian news agency, I met many Russian Jews and found excellent human qualities in them. For this reason, many of them became my best friends. It was from some of the Russian Jews, I heard the painful stories of the Holocaust and the brutalities of Hitler and his Nazi gangs. I had the honor of meeting a few Holocaust survivors in Russia.
As I was about to start a newspaper, I decided to confront antisemitism and promote interfaith harmony. I also decided to publish articles favorable to Israel, knowing full well, it was not an easy task and I may face severe consequences from the society and the state machinery. Prior to the publication of my own newspaper Blitz, Mr. Saul Singer an editor of the Jerusalem Post published my op-ed advocating relations between Bangladesh and Israel. Seeing this article, an American Jew, Dr. Richard Benkin contacted me over email. Onwards I helped him in getting one article favoring relations between Bangladesh and Israel published in an English daily in this country. When Richard Benkin came to know about my plan of publishing Blitz, he encouraged me, particularly after knowing that this would be the first-ever newspaper published from any Muslim nation, which will vigorously confront radical Islam and jihad, denounce antisemitism and Holocaust denial, promotes interfaith harmony and advocate relations between Bangladesh and Israel.
Blitz began its journey in July 2003, and its first issue had a front-page article titled – “Bangladesh should recognize Israel”. Our readers in Bangladesh, though were surprised seeing it, their reaction was not adverse.
I then received an invitation from the Hebrew Writers Association in Tel Aviv for participating in an interfaith seminar, which was jointly organized by the Tel Aviv University and US Department of State. I accepted the invitation with great delight and planned my trip.
On November 29, 2003, as I was about to board a Dhaka-Bangkok flight, which would connect me to another flight of El Al Airlines to Tel Aviv, I was arrested by the Bangladesh authorities. I was physically tortured for over a week during interrogation and then sent to prison as the authorities brought sedition, treason, and blasphemy charge against me. I was falsely branded as a Zionist spy.
At first, they did not charge me with anything but claimed that my “crime” was “espionage in the interests of Israel against the interests of Bangladesh.” You see, anyone who even suggests that all faiths are equally legitimate must be demonized, and you can do that by preying on people’s vulnerability to wild and untrue conspiracy theories involving the Jews.
Conditions were terrible for me and my family while I was in prison. I was kept in a wing for the mentally insane. The constant screaming, the terrible heat, the filth, and the accusations were intended to break me. My family was threatened and attacked. Police refused to act, blaming it all on my “alliance with the Jews.” They did not even let me attend my mother’s funeral. While my health deteriorated, my spirit did not.
People are punished for committing crimes. But could we ever believe that someone would be arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for long 17 months just for being in favor of global peace and promoting interfaith dialogue?
My Own Story
One of the stories that have influenced my way of thinking is the story of Pharaoh and Moses. This Pharaoh said, there were too many Jews. He first ordered abstinence. When that did not work, he ordered the killing of every male child. When a radical person comes and gives an order to young men and women to commit suicide in the name of God, I am reminded of that story. The order was given by the evil Pharaoh, to kill Jewish male children for the simple reason they are Jewish. Where would we be today if Moses had been killed by Pharaoh? Why then do fundamentalists use prison and even death to kill all chances of peace? Why do they not see they are the followers of evil Pharaoh and not of the prophets?
Interfaith dialogues based on a will to know the other will lead to understanding and respect of all faiths and beliefs and it is crucial at this time. It prevents stereotyping such as “all Jews, Christians, Muslims are like this or that”. I do caution interfaith dialogue that is solely based on theology, which is what the religion should be, and it is not what it is or how the people practice. Theological debates are interesting within a community, yet they are restricted for the most part to scholars who use one lineage of thought or ideology.
There is a difference between faith and belief. I might believe that my religion is the only true path to God. I can believe that I am right. I can believe that I have the only way. I can believe that I am right and everyone else is wrong. I can believe the other is evil. Fear is what prevents me from reaching out and challenging my beliefs. Fear is also what motivates me to be very vocal and try to influence others in my beliefs. Fear is what makes me use force to impose my beliefs. Because I have never challenged my beliefs, I will remain ignorant of other possibilities. It is through dialogue, honest debate, that I can not only challenge my own beliefs but gain new insight into myself and the other. I might even find out that someone else has the same belief and if the fear is broken, the bridge is built, then a dialogue can take place. After the internal journey, the challenge of my own core beliefs remains is faith that is based on God, the Creator of the universe. How could this be? How can I still be true to myself? I have a choice, either I stay and learn or go away and remain close-minded.
I have been challenged, if I accept the challenge and base my research on fact instead of fiction a new reality takes shape, hence a transformation from within. I start growing as a person and hence become a better human being. If I stay as and remain firm in my erroneous beliefs, I am deluded, I regress and fall into the abyss of darkness because I have closed myself off from reality “Mine and the Other”. This is the message that prophets and saints have preached for years and no one paid heed. Rabbiah of Iraq, a Muslim Saint, and mystic, used the metaphor of setting heaven on fire and extinguishing the fires of hell, so people stopped to pay lip service and being hypocrites because they did good deeds to secure their path to heaven.
Like most Muslims, I’ve been victimized by a socially supported information flow; one that taught me to look the other way when facts seem to contradict the politically-mandated and politically-correct worldview that we are supposed to adopt. I was taught that much of the world is in essence my enemy and that Israel and the Jewish people are the embodiment of evil. And I was taught to distrust—even though we all admired—Americans. And that is the case because the enemies of freedom have wormed their way into most social institutions in the Muslim world—the press, the media, governments, and schools. I have seen this in my own nation—a nation of good people. These enemies of freedom seek to control my people by controlling our access to information and our contact with those who offer a different point of view.
To avoid misinterpretation, I must emphasize that such practices are neither Islamic nor culturally mandated. They are political. And, thankfully, politics changes. In my own case, I was fortunate. My parents raised me to be open and moral, and I had a journalist’s natural curiosity and access to information via the Internet. I began to see that there was more information than we were being force-fed; information that quite often contradicted the political orthodoxy. And it opened my eyes. I saw that the United States is not any threat to us; neither are the Jews, Zionism, western culture, or the so-called “infidels.” No, the greatest threat to us is the same thing that threatens non-Muslims, that threatens us all. It is a dedicated cadre of individuals who justify killing innocents by falsely—falsely—using our faith.
And so, like any good journalist, I began writing about it in Blitz, warning our people about the rise of terrorism, advocating interfaith dialogue, and urging Muslim Bangladesh to recognize Jewish Israel. Colleagues outside of my country—both Muslims and non-Muslims—joined me in this effort. And as we wrote, people listened. Not all of them agreed with us; in fact, most did not. But our efforts sparked the beginning of public discussion and debate on these issues. And my people began to recall the interfaith respect that is our true heritage.
In 2005 I took personal initiative in printing a Bangla version of the Torah while we had distributed hundreds of copies of the Torah in English amongst the leading libraries, entirely at our own cost. Now people can buy a copy of Torah from any of the local bookstores. Furthermore, Blitz has been organizing celebrations of Rosh Hashanah in Dhaka, which is participated by people from every walks of life. We have been successful in breaking the century-old wrong practice of considering Israel, Jews, and Torah as taboo.
The wrong imprisonment
Despite the fact that the charges brought against me were utterly false and unsubstantiated, the Metropolitan Session Judge in Dhaka, Mohammed Johurul Haque handed me seven-year rigorous imprisonment. I was released from prison on July 31, 2018, after serving the entire period of imprisonment. During the entire period, I was locked in an isolated prison inside the condemned cell alongside death row inmates.
The voice of Blitz
On my release from prison, my determination of confronting radical Islam, antisemitism, and Holocaust denial became even stronger. I continued writing and publishing an article from others against radical Islam and jihad and gradually our popularity and size of readership began to further expand.
In Bangladesh, Blitz has been playing a key role in promoting interfaith harmony, while it is considered as the only newspaper in the Muslim world that denounces antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Of course, due to our editorial policy of promoting unpopular opinion, Blitz does not get any advertisement from the local entrepreneurs not we are under any grant from any organization. This newspaper is run with my personal resources.
As Blitz confronts radical Islam and jihad, our office was bombed in 2006 by the members of an Islamist group, while I was physically attacked and abducted. But nothing could suffocate our voice.
On November 11, 2020, the online edition of our newspaper came under massive DDoS attacks for the ‘crime’ of publishing a number of reports about the Dominica government’s selling citizenship and even diplomatic positions to members of jihadist groups, transnational drugs trafficking rackets, and several suspicious Iranian nationals. Prior to these DDoS attacks, we were threatened by email by the agents of Dominica to either delete the articles and reports or face consequences. Then they even came up with the demand of removing all the anti-jihadist articles in Blitz. For obvious reasons, we did not accept such an outrageous demand. We can remain offline for weeks – or even months, but we can never surrender to the evil forces.
During my journalistic experience of over three decades, this is for the first time I am witnessing the horrific threats posed by a rogue regime, which is resorting to dangerous cybercrime like DDoS attacks, with the notorious agenda of silencing or suffocating investigative journalism and free media. Most importantly, online media and websites are being openly threatened by the crime rackets with the threats of DDoS attacks.
While talking to Noa Fisher, editor of Daily Research Editor, cyber policy and strategy expert, Gil Baram termed the attack to be very dangerous as there is a flood of sensitive data out there of governments, security firms, and even journalists, that can be in the wrong hands causing serious damage.
Cyber experts told Noa Fisher, it is currently impossible to trace the root of attacks due to the complexity of the internet and advanced mechanism. He also added that “it doesn’t matter how strong your security is the site can still become under the attack of DDoS again.”
DDoS attacks are illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and initiating a DDoS attack against a network will end up in jail with hefty fines. Senior cybercrime official here at Tel Aviv said: “The fine can account up to US$500,000 along with imprisonment of up to 10 years.”
A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is a malicious attack to disrupt the website and its traffic, service, or network by overwhelming the target with flooding of internet traffic.
I would like to appeal to the members of the international media to please stand in defense of Blitz and save us from the cruel DDoS attacks and if possible – call upon the international community and law enforcement agencies to investigate this notorious crime and bring the culprits into the book.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.