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Photo by Michael De Dora

Many of the bigger secular and civil rights organizations have been making noise about the case of Alexander Aan, the 30-something civil servant of West Sumatra, Indonesia, who was beaten by an angry mob and then arrested and convicted… all for stating his atheism on Facebook.
At the Center for Inquiry (where I work), Aan’s situation has been perhaps our primary focus as an organization since the Student Leadership Conference last month, most recently with a protest held this past Friday in front of the Indonesian Consulate in New York City.
(For a great summation of this case, I’m posting a conversation between CFI’s Michael De Dora and Chris Mooney from Point of Inquiry about Aan at the end of this piece below.)
But why is this such a priority? This is actually a good question. Folks are wary to ask about this out loud sometimes, but it’s a perfectly valid thing to wonder in these terms: Is the Aan case significant enough, in and of itself, to warrant so much of the energy and resources of organizations, particularly when a) it’s not like we’re all swimming in money and personpower, and b) there are other causes that affect many more people in far more dire ways, even allowing for how horrendously Aan has been treated.
Even for those whose hearts ache for Alexander, I understand why focusing on him can feel like a kind of cynical tokenism, finding a person we don’t know much about to rally around for the sake of rallying.
It won’t surprise you to know, however, that I think that Aan’s situation is more than a token, more than a branding opportunity, and very much worthy of our efforts — and I mean those of my employer as well as the movement as a whole.
Aan’s situation is both very real and also symbolic. At CFI, we are sincerely trying to win a man who has been imprisoned unjustly his freedom. We’re doing this through various communications channels to the Indonesian government as well as from the grassroots. It’s not at all clear how much of an impact we can have, but whatever it may be, we’ll make it.
But the symbolism of Aan’s persecution is also critical. Take away the names and locations, and look at the raw facts: A man was attacked by a crowd of regular people for nothing more than saying he was an atheist (as well as posting some apparently satirical cartoons about Islam) on a social networking site for his friends to see. Rather than punish those who attacked him, a government decided that it is this man, not the mob, who is the criminal. His crime: Doubting the existence of a magic man in the sky. Then this man is sent to prison and forced to pay an exorbitant fine.
It’s maddening. It flies in the face of everything we think we know about basic human rights. And, importantly, it’s aimed squarely at us. As a community, I do think that seculars and skeptics are roused to action and sympathy when anyone is persecuted for any belief system, be it one we agree with or not. But because nonbelievers are of such a tiny minority in this part of the world (especially avowed nonbelievers), it’s not often that we hear of one of our own facing down the tidal wave of state-enforced theism in such a blatant and explicit way. It demands our attention.
And it demands our response. Alexander Aan will surely not be the last, in Indonesia or elsewhere, to face these kinds of penalties for being openly nontheistic. His situation is a wakeup call to us. Marginalized though we are in the U.S., we still have our freedom. Our beliefs — our understanding and acceptance of reality — are not on the books as crimes. But atheists in other parts of the world are not so fortunate, and Aan is just one of those suffering for this reality.
If we’re silent, or even just privately incensed, then his persecutors, and all those that would follow, are given a pass. Again, we don’t know Alexander. We don’t know if he’s a nice guy, if he’s funny, if he has personality quirks, or what music he likes. But we owe it to him all the same to at least try to bring him justice, and thereby help ease the path of all the Aans to come. And they will come, especially if we say nothing.
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