By Michael De Dora
CFI Representative to the United Nations
A young person, after being raised within a traditionally religious and authoritative family, begins to question the veracity of the religious beliefs he or she has held for their entire life.
Having no one else to confer with on this important issue, this person turns to their computer for local secularist groups. After a quick search, he or she has found a blog, an online discussion forum, and perhaps even a Facebook page for a group where non-religious people meet and share their experiences. Or, if there are no nearby groups, this person starts up a new one. Soon enough, he or she becomes part of a community of people sharing their doubts regarding and even criticisms of religious belief.
I’m sure many of you can identify with this story. It is quickly becoming the norm for an increasing number of young Americans who leave the religion in which they were raised.
But now imagine that, after finding and speaking with others who share your concerns about religion on the Internet, an angry mob shows up at your workplace. The group is irate that you have announced your doubts about religion online, and made others feel it is acceptable to do the same. They drag you outside and beat you. Perhaps a worried co-worker calls the police. Officers arrive and arrest you for your blasphemous remarks. Months later, you are sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined a hefty sum.
This might sound shocking, but it is precisely what happened last year in Indonesia to a young man named Alexander Aan.
Aan, 31, was a civil servant who, in January 2012, posted messages to Facebook expressing his lack of belief in a god, as well as several cartoons about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. As a result, he was attacked at his workplace by an angry mob. When police arrived, they arrested Aan and charged him with blasphemy, promoting atheism, lying on an official government document (Indonesia requires its citizens to claim a religion; Aan marked down Islam), and disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility. In June, a district court found Aan guilty of incitement and sentenced him to two years and six months in prison. He was also fined 100 million rupiah (US $10,600). Aan remains imprisoned during his appeals process, which is now taking place.
That’s right: a man will spend 30 months in prison for discussing his doubts regarding religion on Facebook.
Unfortunately, Aan’s gut-wrenching story is not the exception, but the rule in the many countries around the world which criminalize any criticism of religion, and sometimes even atheism itself.
Cases like that of Alexander Aan are not on the decline – if anything, they are holding steady in number, if not increasing.And blasphemy-like laws don’t only harm non-religious people like Aan – they harm people of every faith and worldview. Consider the case of Rimsha Masih.
Masih is a young Christian girl, believed to be developmentally disabled and around fourteen years in age, who in late 2012 faced charges in Pakistan for allegedly burning sacred Islamic documents – a crime punishable by death in that country. She was arrested after a local cleric said she had burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a religious book used to teach the Qu’ran to children. Hundreds of protestors demonstrated outside the police station where Masih was being held, demanding she face the harshest possible penalty.
The case took positive turn when police arrested the cleric and charged him with fabricating evidence, and the Supreme Court cleared Masih of the charges against her. However, Masih and her family will feel the consequences of the blasphemy charges forever, as they – along with the entire village of Christians where Masih and her family lived – have relocated or are in hiding due to fear of vigilante retribution.
No person, regardless of their religious affiliation, should face social or legal punishment simply for speaking about his or her beliefs in public. And no topic should be off limits — especially religion, which has such an enormous impact on the lives of billions.
For more than five years, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) has been working with other nongovernmental organizations at the United Nations to pressure the international community to respect and protect the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression, and to fight any measure that would restrict those rights. As could be expected, the U.S. delegation has done the same. But these groups and delegations cannot shoulder the burden alone. They need the help of every willing and able American, especially committed secularists who know the value of free speech.
This is why CFI recently launched the Campaign for Free Expression. We are seeking to increase the public’s knowledge of the prevalence of blasphemy-like laws and the harm they create. We want to raise awareness of international treaties that bar blasphemy laws. But perhaps most importantly, we also seek to compel people to take action.
So, what can you do? As is turns out, quite a bit, even from the comfort of your own home. Here are three easy suggestions:
1) Press U.S. lawmakers and the Administration to keep strong in their opposition to blasphemy laws and urge them to recognize the particularly difficulties face by secularists across the globe. You can do precisely this in just a matter of minutes by filling out this action alert.
2) Pressure foreign diplomats and leaders of foreign governments to respect their commitments to international agreements protecting the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression. You can find contact information on each country’s Ambassador to the United States here, and sign a petition to the leader of eight countries prosecuting people on free speech grounds here.
3) Get the word out! Taking action is not just about political work; it’s also about helping to form an upsurge of people who deeply care about defending universal human rights. Post about the Campaign for Free Expression on Twitter with the hashtag #CFICFE. Share news articles, videos, and other materials on your social media pages. Write posts on your blog or submit a letter to the editor to your local newspaper. Or organize an event in your community.
Those who oppress others through blasphemy and other laws are not going to easily back down from their perched positions of power. It’s going to a long, hard, sustained public campaign and lobbying effort to improve the current situation. But unless we are willing to accept innocent people going to jail for victimless crimes, we don’t have a choice.
Michael De Dora (Center for Inquiry) Michael is director of the Center for Inquiry‘s Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the United Nations. He received his master’s degree in political theory from Brooklyn College, and a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and communication from SUNY-Albany. Currently he maintains the blog The Moral Perspective, and contributes essays to Massimo Pigliucci’s blog Rationally Speaking.