On blasphemy, wielding both standards and stories

Aug 22, 2013

Imagine for a moment that you are a young adult, roughly age 30, who was raised to believe in a certain religious faith, but now has doubts. In a search for personal knowledge and connections with other doubters, you scour the Internet for information on and people involved with atheism, agnosticism, humanism, secularism, and skepticism. Maybe you join or form a local atheist group on Facebook, start a blog, or write several tweets critical of religion. Perhaps you do all three.


Many readers of this article will have heard a story like this before. It might even sound like your story, certain minor details being changed. In fact, it would be mine, but for the age being a decade off.


Yet here is where our story takes a turn.

One day you go to work – say, as a government employee outside a major city in a fairly developed and democratic country – and you’re attacked by a mob of angry religious fundamentalists who are unhappy with your disbelief, and the fact you are spreading it to others on the Internet. Your attackers are never charged, but you are; local authorities arrest you and charge you with promoting atheism and inciting religious hatred, among other things. You are later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and fined $10,000.


If this sounds crazy, it shouldn’t. It is the true story Alexander Aan, the Indonesian atheist who was arrested last winter, sentenced last summer, and will remain imprisoned until at least through the end of 2014.


Through my position at the Center for Inquiry, I have been involved in the fight for Aan’s freedom from the start. We supported the Asian Human Rights Commission’s letter-writing campaign to the Indonesian government; we expressed public outrage over Aan’s sentencing; we protested outside Indonesian diplomatic offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City; we petitioned the Obama administration to intervene; and we urged Indonesian officials to secure Aan’s freedom.


In working on this case, we have relied mainly upon moral and legal arguments. We have shown that Aan’s punishment violates the widely held basic moral values that each person should be free to believe and disbelieve as they wish, and to express those beliefs to others. And we have made clear that international law – as laid out in treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – protect the freedoms of religion, belief and expression. (You can read more about these agreements here.)


These are the obvious and correct arguments for an advocacy organization to employ in order to make representatives of foreign governments understand that they are forsaking their promises to the global community.


However, I have learned from my interactions with the broader general public that these arguments only go so far in compelling the average person to think and act. While most people agree on the moral value of freedoms of religion, belief and expression, and are pleased to learn there is a strong international basis for these, their interest is often limited to just that – interest.


That is, until I tell them the story of Alexander Aan, to which they usually respond with shock and horror.


Given the theme of this month's newsletter, then, here is what I suggest. Secularists engaging in political advocacy on the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression must make the sound moral and legal arguments against restrictions of these rights. But we must also communicate stories of persecution that will help raise public awareness and outrage regarding the actual harm done to real people by these laws.


The most disturbing fact about Alexander Aan’s case is that it is in no way unique. There is the story of Raif Badawi, the pro-democracy activist in Saudi Arabia who was recently sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for his criticism of the religious hierarchy in the country. There is the story of Asif Mohiuddin, the Bangaldeshi blogger who was brutally attacked and nearly killed by Islamic fundamentalists, only to be later arrested for insulting religious sentiments. And there is the internationally known case of Rimsha Masih, the Christian girl whose entire community was forced to relocate after she was framed for blasphemy and threatened to vigilante violence.


This is why last year the Center for Inquiry launched the Campaign for Free Expression: to highlight stories of real people around the world harmed by laws that restrict thought and expression. These stories include Aan, Badawi, Mohiuddin, Masih, and many, many others.


Secularists can and should play an important role in the fight for freedom of thought and expression. We do not advocate for government to endorse any particular religious or non-religious worldview. To the contrary, we simply ask that governments and laws value equality before the law, and guarantee and protect the basic human rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression.


But to advocate for this view successfully, we must be comprehensive. We must combine philosophical and legal arguments with narratives and stories. This is perhaps the only way we can secure the freedom of persecuted people like Alexander Aan and stimulate the general public to realize we must secure freedom for all. Otherwise stories like Aan’s will remain common – a prospect that should disturb us all. 


Michael De Dora is director of the Center for Inquiry's Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the United Nations. He also maintains the blog The Moral Perspective.

Written By: Michael De Dora
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