(Editor’s note: In his previous article Shoaib explained to Israel Today how he as a Muslim Bangladeshi was imprisoned for supporting Israel in the world’s third-largest Muslim country with a population of 160 million people, neighboring India to the east.)
On December 16, as Bangladesh celebrates the Golden Jubilee of its victory against the Pakistani occupation forces in 1971, a large number of people from around the world are asking me – “What role did the State of Israel play and what was the role of the Palestinians?”
Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the newly-born Bangladesh. This is a fact that many of our younger Bangladeshis do not know.
Israel actively aided Bangladeshis during the 1971 liberation war, and even supplied arms and logistics to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters through India.
Meanwhile, Palestinians, particularly Yasser Arafat, termed Bangladeshi freedom fighters “terrorists,” and supported Pakistan. The Palestinians called Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 “another Israel-Palestine conflict.” In other words, Arafat and his cronies in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) perceived Bangladesh as another Israel, and Pakistan as paralleling Palestine.
However, following Bangladesh’s victory, then-Foreign Minister Mushtaque Ahmed declined Israel’s recognition of the newborn nation. (Ahmed later helped assassinate Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.)
Instead of accepting Israel’s hand of friendship, Bangladesh supported the Palestinians in spite of the Palestinians’ animosity toward them.
The passports that were issued following independence barred our citizens from traveling to Israel, Taiwan and South Africa. However, the ban on South Africa and Taiwan were soon after removed. Only recently has the Bangladeshi government finally also removed the words ‘except Israel’ from our passports, which is a positive sign.
Bangladesh, a recap
Even before the British colonizers left the Indian subcontinent, a Bengali identity was already forged. There was a movement in Bengal prior to the partition of India in 1947 to make Bengal an independent state – neither a part of India, nor a part of Pakistan. But subsequent violence between Hindus and Muslims led to Bengal being divided between India and East Pakistan. Right before the partition, a famine in Bengal considered widely to be artificially created, led to millions of deaths.
Subsequently, the partition led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. In 1952, the flame of Bengali nationalism rekindled during the “Language Movement,” as Bengalis faced persecution and discrimination, despite being the majority. This eventually led to Bangladesh breaking away from Pakistan on March 26, 1971. The Pakistani government targeted the intellectuals in our nation, as a part of the 1971 genocide that left three million dead.
So, the Bengali identity is not something new or young. It has been there for hundreds of years. Bengalis faced multiple genocides and endless persecution at the hands of foreign powers. Our struggle for an independent nation, which lasted for hundreds of years, culminated in 1971, when Bangladesh, against all odds, was born.
A Jewish army officer
Here we need to mention a very important point. A Jewish officer of the Indian Army, Lieutenant General Jack Farj Rafael Jacob (“General Jacob”) participated in our war of independence. He had deep and warm ties with the State of Israel and fought against the Pakistani occupation forces hand-in-hand with Bangladeshi freedom fighters – Muktibahini. General Jacob is respected by every individual in Bangladesh as a hero, and we are eternally grateful to him for his contributions. Yet Bangladeshis don’t know about his warm ties with Israel.
Unfortunately, antisemitic forces have greatly influenced our society. The majority of the newspapers in Bangladesh, except for Weekly Blitz, are engaged in demonizing Israel, Jews and even Judaism.
My support for the State of Israel
Ever since I was a child, my father taught me to respect all religions and treat people from every faith equally. I grew up in a tolerant environment at home, which was very much an exception in the society in which I grew up, heavily marred with antisemitic hatred and demonization of Israel and Jews.
When I worked for the TASS news agency in the 90s, I had rapport with many Jewish colleagues who were extremely friendly people. During my career as a journalist, I got to know about Israel’s unconditional support for Bangladeshis during the 1971 war – a fact still very much unknown to most Bangladeshis. The media in Bangladesh, despite knowing about Israeli aid during 1971, lives in a sphere of antisemitic hatred. Like the media of the rest of the Muslim world, it portrays Israel as a demonic nation, and equates Jews with dogs and pigs. Many in Bangladesh do not know the truth about Israel, and are brainwashed by the Bangladeshi media, and the antisemitic propaganda that is widespread in madrassas (Muslim religious learning centers), schools, mosques and media.
I decided that it was my mission to at least let our people know the truth about Israel and Jews. That is when I launched Blitz. In 2003, however, I was arrested for supporting Israel, and was tried for blasphemy and sedition. I was accused of offending the sentiments of Muslims in my country by supporting Israel and was jailed for 7 years. I still get death threats from Islamist groups in Bangladesh. My office was bombed in July 2006, and I virtually had no one to protect me from these nefarious forces. However, I never gave in.
Bangladesh is not a radical Muslim nation
Bangladeshi people consider Islam as a religion, but not as a political force. Therefore, most people can be described as being religious in the sense that they pray in mosques regularly, but do not really care about any political opinion the imam may have to offer. To Bangladeshis, imams are no more than clergymen whose jurisdiction is very much restricted to the mosque. However, people do hear hate speech in mosques on a regular basis. Eventually, they are victims of incessant antisemitic propaganda. And when lies are repeated many times over, people may involuntarily start believing them.
Bangladesh seen as an economic star
Bangladesh’s economic miracle has made particularly big headlines this year. It has overtaken Pakistan economically. In the International Money Fund’s (IMF) latest Economic Outlook, Bangladesh has also overtaken India in GDP per capita. Life expectancy has increased by seven years since 2000. The first secret of Bangladesh’s tremendous economic growth is the magnanimous statesmanship of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The second reason is political stability, which is a key factor for any foreign investors. While having been centered on export of clothing and textile products, Bangladesh’s economy is now gradually diversifying with the export of newer items as well as highly-skilled labors, especially IT sector professionals.
Considering the economic achievements of Bangladesh in the last decade, if Bangladesh does not give in to the Islamist forces, it will surely emerge as a developed nation over the next 25 years.
I believe Bangladesh should normalize relationship with Israel before that, as it can benefit hugely from Israeli technology.
However, Bangladesh still has no diplomatic relationship with Israel. We cannot expect things to change overnight. But I strongly believe the removal of the ‘except Israel’ phrase in our passports was a major step that hints at the prospects of future diplomatic relations. With the recent change of attitude of many Middle Eastern nations towards Israel, I believe the landscape in Bangladesh will soon be changing, too. Normalizing relations between Bangladesh and Israel now is just a matter of time.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Weekly Blitz. Follow him on Twitter @salah_shoaib