Friday, January 27, 2012

The Fate of Alexander Aan

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?


Darren Maher said...

It's a small thing, but how about at least his name and the circumstances of his arrest as a wikipedia entry?

sminhinnick said...

A few minutes of Googling has found leads on this story. There is a Facebook page (of course!) for his supporters called "Support Alexander Aan". Here:

The Jakata Globe published a good opinion piece by TV anchor Desi Anwar here: She might keep us updated if contacted directly. Try her personal page here: or via Twitter - @desianwar

Another Jakata Globe article ( reveals more possible contacts. And that there is a 600-strong atheist organization in Jakarta!

I agree that this story should be followed up and communicated widely - to get Alexander Aan freed and to throw the spotlight on anti-atheist laws in Indonesia.

sminhinnick said...

A second Facebook page in support of Mr Aan:

sminhinnick said...

That second Facebook page I listed above has been "liked" by some big-hitters, including:

American Humanist Association,
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official),
Global Secular Humanist Movement,
American Atheists, Inc. (Official),
Afghan Atheists,
Anti-Theists. Pro Active Atheists. Opposing Religion.,
Blasphemy Day International,
Atheist Alliance International,
Stephen Hawking,
Freedom From Religion Foundation,
IRiS (Indonesian Rationalist Society),
Amnesty International,
Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF),
Richard Dawkins.

This story is being watched by some influential atheist groups, and I am sure we will hear more about it.

Darren Maher said...

Ted I would concede your point if the name of the blog was 'Atheist Tactician'.

Anonymous said...

Sminhinnick, the "Likes" on Facebook are actually the other way round. So it is not those big-hitters you mentioned who like that support group, but the admins of that support group like those you listed. It does not necessarily mean that these groups or people are watching the case yet.

sminhinnick said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

I have now emailed PZ Myers about this, and posted a blog entry about it here:

Please go to my article and like it, tweet it, and spread the word in any way you can, as something simple and practical that you can do.

sminhinnick said...

My Twitter exchange with Jakarta Globe reporter, Desi Anwar:

@desianwar How can we follow what happens to Alexander Aan? It is no longer being reported in western media.

@sminhinnick not much reporting here either

sminhinnick said...

AAI launches appeal to support Alex Aan -

Uli Himstedt said...

Jesse Reeve said...

We should stay the hell away from Muslim countries unless we plan to go the whole way and support a revolution in apostasy and extinguish Islam like the polio virus... Just leave them the hell alone unless they threaten to attack us.

Who is "we" in this context?

If "we" includes Alexander Aan and the other atheists living in Muslim countries (such as the group sminhinnick refers to) then it is too late for them to "stay the hell away" from the places where they live. And if Aan is one of us, then "they" have already attacked us.

The overall tone of your post implies that there is no other option than violence to address the injustice being done to Mr. Aan. But violence has a poor track record when it comes to "extinguishing" harmful ideas. Social tools like persuasion, condemnation, ridicule, moral outrage, and free exchange of ideas are the most effective for the purpose.

Muslims are not evil mutants; like all humans they are subject to social forces. If the treatment of Mr. Aan is condemned, then the notion that anti-blasphemy laws and mob violence are unjust will have a chance to spread in Indonesia. If the only voices that speak to the case of Mr. Aan are the bigoted fundamentalist Muslims that assaulted and imprisoned him, those injustices will continue unabated-- if not worsen. "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

Ted said...

Darren, if you are implying that I have tactics without ethics then answer me this: how many more lives are you willing to sacrfice for the pollyannaish delusion that Islam can be modernised with half-hearted measures? Whether victims of terrorism in the West, or Western soldiers in the Middle East, or moderates in Muslim countries. How many of these people have to die before Islam is modernised or you realise it's a delusion founded on the lie that Islam is capable of being tamed?

The bodycount is ticking ...

Darren Maher said...

Sorry Ted, I think that we're talking at cross-purposes here, what is it you're suggesting?

Kristopher said...

the blasphemey laws have been on the books since the 60's. the supreme court of indonesia was asked to review (and perhaps strike down the law but instead they re-affirmed it in 2009, so the courts are un-likely to be sympathetic)

the law has been used on a variety of cases to send people to jail for what we consider freedom of religion.

a muslim man said his prayers in his native language instead of in arabic... 18 months jail.

another man was practicing a non-standard version of islam ... 2.5 years in prison

a man is accused of whistling during his prayers (accused by one person, not sure how they proved it)... 6 months in prison.

all of these men were mulsims in a country with an 88% muslim majority. So it's unlikely he will find a large amount of support among public oppinion inside indonesia.

furthermore in this constitution it claims that the country is founded on the principle of believing in one powerful God. but the law sanctions 6 different ways to worship that god, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. thus some have claimed that being an athiest is illegal. putting him at a furhter disadvantage to the people in the above three cases, which did less than he did, from their perspective.

indonesia has traiditionaly been tolerant of athiests as members of their communist party, but in 2006 when they recognized the list of only 6 "legitimate" religions, by presidential decree, that tolerance seems to be going out of style and since 2005 the blashpemy law have become more heavily enforced

if all he said was that God does not exist on his personal facebook page his defense might be able to argue that it was not "public" which is a constraint on the blasphemy law... but a lot of his case i think will hinge on the "heated exchange" that happened afterwards.

I think our best plan of action would be to focus attention on the illegal actions of the mob. in a 2008 case that is similar they arrested both the "blashphemer" and two men for inciting violence. so it might be easier than we think to get at least some of the rioters hauled off to jail as a deterent to help protect some of the other athiests in the country.

alot of the rationlization behind the blasphemy law is to minimize sectarian violence that could be incited by percieved insults to people religion (at least people belonging to the important 6). though it is used to punish religous minorities... however due to this rationlization they seem to to be open to crackdowns on both sides of any dispute.

(just to clarify i am not defending what they do or saying we shouldn't fight for freedom to not believe and what not, i am merely tring to say what is the most practical things that we can hope to accomplish)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am content to let the people there deal with the practical concerns.

At this distance, I can best focus on the moral concerns - what should be done, even if it proves to be impractical.

What should be done is that the assailants should be arrested, and Aan should be freed. (In some cases involving Christians, the Christian community was able to get assylum for the victim in a more peaceful community.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The most recent news:

Alexander Aan to renounce atheism and repent.

Kristopher said...

i would say whatever they want me to say if it meant not spending 5 years in prison too.

Darren Maher said...

Gallileo did it, Salman Rushdie did it, truth has never required martyrs because it rests on it's own merits and does not need the self-sacrifice of its adherents to make it true.

Anonymous said...

The case has been brought to court, no final judgment yet. You can still support him through this: