Back in 2003, the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Jew’ were almost considered taboo in Bangladesh, the world’s third-largest Muslim country with 160 million people. During that time, it was impossible to find a copy of the Torah in any of the bookstores in the country. Despite the existence of a slim Jewish populace in Bangladesh, they could not openly proclaim their religious identity.
Most importantly, during that time, Bangladesh was ruled by an Islamist coalition comprising the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Jamaat-e-Islami and a number of radical Islamic parties, who were openly patronizing jihadist groups such as Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB). The government was not only supporting Palestinians, it was also sending locals to fight against the Jewish state. The situation in Bangladesh was no better than today’s Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban and their jihadist cohorts.
Defying all of these odds and adversities, in 2003, I openly spoke in favor of normalizing relations between Bangladesh and Israel. As a first step, I wrote an article in The Jerusalem Post advocating the establishment of relations between Bangladesh and Israel. In the same year, I was invited by the Hebrew Writers Association to attend an international peace conference, which was jointly organized by the US Department of State, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew Writers Association. But unfortunately, on my way to Tel Aviv, I was arrested at Dhaka International Airport, taken into police custody, tortured during interrogation and sent to an isolated cell.
Since then, many people in Bangladesh and even in the US have asked – why, being a Muslim, had I openly spoken in favor of Israel and denounced antisemitism and Holocaust denial? In response, I said that since my childhood, my father Ghulam Ather Choudhuri had taught me never to hate the religion of others, and to view all in the world as a human beings. I keep on saying, Israel is the blessed land of God gifted to the Jews, and for this particular reason, being a practicing Muslim, I feel proud to proclaim myself as a Zionist.
While my determination and support for Israel never weakened, I did have to serve seven years of harsh imprisonment in Bangladesh for the “crimes” of confronting radical Islam and jihad; for denouncing antisemitism and Holocaust denial; for promoting interfaith harmony; and for defending the State of Israel.
My newspaper, Weekly Blitz, has been openly supporting the Jewish State since 2003. This is the only newspaper in the entire Muslim world that not only defends Israel, it also confronts nefarious jihadist acts of the mega-terror outfit Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and those Palestinian terrorists who wish to spread the reign of terror in Israel and throughout Middle East and beyond.
After many years of struggle, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence, Bangladesh authorities lifted the ban on traveling to Israel. According to local media sources newly issued e-passports, after Eid al Fitr, no longer feature the sentence “THIS PASSPORT IS VALID FOR ALL COUNTRIES FOR THE WORLD EXCEPT ISRAEL”. Instead, the passports now state “THIS PASSPORT IS VALID FOR ALL COUNTRIES FOR THE WORLD.”
Since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the country has not recognized Israel, despite Israel being one of the first four countries to recognize Bangladesh. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan has confirmed that the passports will no longer feature any restrictions on travel to Israel, as per the international standard. However, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has said that although Bangladesh still does not recognize Israel, the passport-issuing authority is vested in the Ministry of Home Affairs, and whatever the passport states is entirely the jurisdiction of Home Ministry.
Following Bangladesh’s decision of removing the words “Except Israel” from Bangladeshi passport, Palestinian envoy in Dhaka, Yousef SY Ramadan in a statement to the local media said he is going to ask for “clarification” from Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal and ambassador-at-large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the reason of Bangladesh’s omission of the words “except Israel” from its passport. Ramadan told the press conference, the omission of the words “except Israel” from Bangladeshi passport “is unacceptable,” and he even went further by saying he has requested a meeting with Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and Ambassador-at-Large Mohammad Ziauddin for a “clarification on the issue.”
Commenting on Palestinian envoy Ramadan’s statement about asking for “clarification” from Bangladesh, diplomatic experts in Dhaka said, “This is clearly violation of diplomatic norms. How is this man demanding clarification from a sovereign country on its own decisions? It sounds like he is trying to dictate to Bangladesh. Such an attitude is unacceptable and a clear violation of diplomatic norms”.
It should be mentioned here that, on February 4, 1972, Israel sent a letter to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs giving recognition to the newly born country. Earlier, the Jewish state had offered assistance and cooperation to Bengali freedom fighters in its war of independence against the Pakistani occupation forces. According to an information source, Khondoker Mostaq Ahmed, killer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the then Foreign Minister, had secretly turned-down the Israeli recognition at the advice of his Pakistani masters.
During the war of independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Palestinians had openly opposed it and had gone further by branding Bengali freedom fighters as terrorists. Yasser Arafat, at the request of Pakistan, had travelled to a number of countries with the agenda of getting support for Pakistani occupation forces. In Arafat’s eyes, Bengali freedom fighters were seen as “terrorists.”
Five years after the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, military dictator Ziaur Rahman’s government released a postal stamp in 1980 depicting a “Palestinian freedom fighter” and the Al Aqsa Mosque. The design resembled Iranian propaganda against Israel, which denies Jerusalem as being the capital of Israel.
At the invitation of military dictators Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammed Ershad, PLO leader Yasser Arafat visited Bangladesh twice – first in 1981 and then in 1987 and was accorded warm welcome. According to a September 1988 US Library of Congress report, the Bangladeshi government reported in 1987 that 8,000 Bangladeshi youths had volunteered to fight for the PLO following this visit. Since the 1980s, under International Military Education and Training (IMET), there has been development of military ties between the PLO and Bangladesh, with PLO soldiers attending one-year courses at the Bangladesh Military Academy in Chittagong.
Almost two decades have passed since I began advocating relations between Bangladesh and Israel. Meanwhile, the Bangla version of Jewish holy scripture Torah has been made available in most of the bookstores in the country. Copies of Torah in Hebrew are also available in several bookstores. Our newspaper Weekly Blitz has been arranging a special program every year during Rosh Hashanah, attended by a cross-section of people, including religious scholars and journalists. Several Bangladeshi nationals also have started openly echoing what I have been saying since 2003. They also are writing articles in a number of international newspapers including Israeli newspapers advocating for relations between Bangladesh and Israel.
However, sadly, in our mission of 20 years supporting the Jewish state from the world’s third largest Muslim-majority country, we never received any substantial support from the State of Israel or any major Israeli organization or individual. The reason behind this is unclear to me. Whether Israel does not deem the Israel-Bangladesh relationship as something valuable, or whether it is anticipating an eventual normalization of relations, is not something I can surmise. However, the latter does seem to be an unavoidable truth.
The landscape of world diplomacy is changing, and soon the entire world will normalize its relations with Israel, as is evident from the recent wave of new ties established between Israel and many Middle Eastern nations. Bangladesh, too, will follow suit. However, the years of ordeals and suffering from our side may eventually be forgotten, as people will forget, and even consider it funny, that there existed a time when someone in a Muslim-majority country had to spend years in prison trying to convince his countrymen of a basic fact: “Jews are humans, and Israel is NOT a monster”.