What are we going to do for Alexander Aan?
Aan is a 31 year old Indonosian civil servant who wrote on his Facebook page that God does not exist. This resulted in some heated exchanges with some posters. Some of those who were offended by his words formed a mob that intercepted him on his way to work. They beat him. When the police came, they arrested Aan for blasphemy. He now faces five years in prison.
I cannot find any news of what has happened since then.
Since the beginning of the year, I have been looking at Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy. Faircloth works for the Richard Dawkins foundation, and has been selected as the opening act for Richard Dawkin's upcoming book tour. His task is to put the secular and atheist community in America on a new - and hopefully more effective - track.
His strategy contains six components that I have covered this month.
The first item on that list was to focus on stories that have a deep human impact.
Well, here's a story of a man who defended his beliefs and was accosted by a mob and beaten. Furthermore, instead of being helped by the police, he was arrested. He now faces the prospect of five years in prison - where he will be surrounded by people with a demonstrated lack of concern for the welfare of others, some of whom no doubt share the passions of the mob that beat him, as do some of the guards whose duty would be to protect him from other prisoners. Even if he it is decided that he is innocent and allowed to go free, what type of future can he expect to have? What type of security can he expect in that environment?
This should not be a story about political strategy. This is a story about a human being.
One of the questions I am asking is, "How is Alexander Aan. Is he (relatively) safe?"
I, personally, want to know.
I would appreciate it if the Richard Dawkins foundation - or some secular or atheist organization - would make a point of finding out, of providing regular updates, and make the relevant Indonesian government officials aware of the fact that the situation is being monitored.
This ties in with Faircloth's third and forth items on Faircloth's list - a secular coalition of organizations pursuing different ends, and innovation in the pursuit of those ends.
Here us an idea. How about a web site that focuses on collecting and reporting on atheist and secular stories around the world? Its focus will be to learn about people like Alexander Aan and make sure that their cases are not forgotten and that their security is assured.
In monitoring the situation that these people face, this organization also would direct the attention of the secular and atheist community to any situation where it may do measurable good.. An organization with the end of monitoring and reporting on religious violence against atheists would be a valuable part of such a coalition.
The sixth item on Faircloth's list was to reclaim moral language.
Aan's story exemplifies a moral principle - that it is wrong to respond to words (or pictures) alone with violence. The only legitimate response to words are words. They may be harsh words. They may be words of condemnation and outrage. However, the line beyond which this response must not cross is that of violence or threat of violence.
Does your religion call for responding to words alone (or pictures) with violence? Then you have an immoral religion.
This is a vital principle for us to be defending. Without it, society risks disintegrating into violent chaos. Without it, all sorts of political, social, and religious factions take up arms to dictate what others may or may not say. The violence ends only when a society finds itself in unanimous agreement - or at least the appearance of unanimous agreement. But it is an agreement reached solely through force if arms.
And when has any society as large as a nation been in unanimous agreement about anything?
If we want peace, and if we want the type of culture that thrives with the constant comparison of ideas and the influx of new ideas, then we want a society that condemns responding to words with violence.
This leads to another issue - which seems to have been swept under the rug.
Has anything been done to identify, arrest, and convict those who are guilty of assault against Mr. Aan? Or is the message being spread throughout Indonesia that acts of violence against theists are acceptable and shall not be punished?
We should be demanding that action be taken of those guilty of assaulting Aan, at the very least to establish a precedent and to give a warning, for the sake of all atheists, that these forms of violent response to atheist beliefs are to be shunned. The fifth item on Faircloth's list is to promote a diversity.
I fear that we are going to find it easy to forget about Alexander Aan, and to leave him to his fate in an Indonesian prison or a vengeful and violent Indonesian mob, because he is a dark-skinned man in a distant land. This is the type of situation in which we must make sure that our learned prejudices do not cause us to unfairly discriminate, and to base decisions on criteria that are irrelevant to the principles we defend. It is exactly these types of cases that we are inclined to ignore and forget about that we need to put an extra effort into including and remembering.
Will it be the case that we forget about Aan and leave him to his fate, only because our prejudices cause us to lack concern for the fate of such people?
So, in conclusion, I would like to ask again.
What are we going to do for Alexander Aan?