Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was charged with blasphemy for writing about atheism and Islam on Facebook, and has since been jailed for two and a half years for spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity.
In light of the recent Center for Inquiry petition to the White House (which got 8,000 signatures but needed 25,000 to guarantee a response), here are some things that we can all do to maintain Alex’s morale and to intensify the international momentum for his release.
1. Write to Alex care of Atheist Alliance International
Keep your message uplifting and positive. In July Alex sent a message from prison, saying that he would feel alone without our support and love.
Say that you are pleased that, since then, 8,000 people have asked the American government to support him. Tell him what you personally are doing to support the campaign for his release. Read his old personal blog, which he referred to in his letter from prison (use google chrome or google translate to translate it from Indonesian), and tell him what you like about his writings. Say that you are looking forward to him being released from prison, and studying abroad with the help of the scholarship fund launched on his behalf by Atheist Alliance International.
To send a message of support to Alex, email info at atheistalliance dot org with “Message for Alex” in the subject line.
2. Talk to politicians directly in your own country
Don’t just write to your politicians. Arrange to meet them or their staff. If that’s not practical, telephone them. Give them a short written summary of the case, and ask them to raise the issue in your parliament and with your government. Remind them that Indonesia has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
For example, we in Atheist Ireland have already briefed Irish politicians about Alex’s case, following which Senators Ivana Bacik and Jillian van Turnhout raised the issue in the Irish Senate. We will be holding another briefing for Irish politicians in the near future. These face-to-face meetings really make a difference to the amount of attention that politicians give to any issue.
3. Highlight the context of worldwide blasphemy laws
Highlight to politicians that blasphemy laws are not used only against atheists, but are also used against Christians, Muslims and members of other religions. Blasphemy laws do not protect religions, they infringe on the freedoms of religious and nonreligious people alike. And in some countries they are often used to settle personal grudges, with little or no due process. As well as Alex, some other important cases to highlight are:
Sanal Edamaruku – 57 year old Atheist Activist, India
Asia Bibi – 40 year old Christian Mother, Pakistan
Youcef Nadarkhani – 35 year old Christian Pastor, Iran
Hamza Kashgari – 23 year old Muslim poet, Saudi Arabia
Pussy Riot – three members of punk band, Russia
4. Start or support a campaign initiative
Write directly to the relevant Indonesian authorities. Individually written emails or letters have a greater impact than form letters. You can get contact details here on the Atheist Alliance International website.
Atheist Alliance International is continuing its appeal for funds to assist with Alex’s legal expenses and support his family while he is in jail. AAI has also launched a scholarship fund, along with Cleveland Freethinkers, for Alex to study outside Indonesia after his eventual release. You can contribute to either of these funds here.
Contact your local Amnesty International branch, and ask how you can help the campaign to have Alex released. Amnesty International has condemned the jailing of Alex as a serious setback for freedom of expression and religion in Indonesia, and has urged the Indonesian government to repeal the legislation.
Support the Indonesian Atheists group, founded by Karl Karnadi who is also active in Atheist Alliance International. Although most of the activities of IA are limited to the Internet, several public gatherings have been held in Jakarta and other cities.You can keep up to date with their work on their wordpress blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel.
In Ireland, Atheist Ireland continues our campaign to support Alex and other victims of blasphemy laws. We have raised the issue with Irish politicians, the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. In the coming months we will be lobbying politicians, speaking and holding a side event on blasphemy laws at the OSCE human dimension meeting in Warsaw in Poland, and bringing Sanal Edamaruku to Dublin. You can keep up to date with our initiatives here.
In the US, the Center for Inquiry continues its excellent campaign to raise national and international awareness of the case and to have Alex released. As well as organizing the recent White House Petition, CFI has lobbied American, Indonesian and international authorities, and has organized a protest in New York City in front of the Office of the Indonesian Consulate General. CFI is currently planning the next phase of its campaign. You can keep up to date with future initiatives here.
In Britain, the Council of Ex Muslims in Britain is campaigning for Alex’s release. You can read the CEMB statement on Alex’s jailing here. Also, in April, Maryam Namazie of the CEMB published this interview with Rafiq Mahmood, who had visited Alex in prison.
Many websites and individuals around the world supported the Center for Inquiry petition for Alex, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Freethought Blogs, Skepchick, Russell Blackford and Hehmant Mehta.
There was an active English language Facebook page for Alex which has closed down. There is another English language Facebook page here, and another one here, mostly conducted in Indonesian with some English posts.
Andrzej Dominiczak has started a petition on change.org directed to the President of Indonesia, seeking Alex’s release. You can sign it here.
Rob Hart has started a new international petition on change.org directed to the President of the United States. This has just started. You can sign it here.
5. Stay optimistic and keep on campaigning
The Center for Inquiry has expressed disappointment that 8,000 people signed its recent online petition to the US Government, which fell short of the 25,000 signatures required for the White House to be obliged to respond to it. I empathize with CFI’s disappointment. However, I think they are being too hard on themselves. They should be proud of their work on this campaign, and they certainly have nothing to apologize for.
This petition was a very useful part of a growing campaign. It has helped enormously to raise awareness of Alex’s plight. Yes, it would have been helpful to have had a White House response through this approach. But we should not over-emphasize the impact of one petition to the government of one country on an ongoing international campaign, regardless of whether or not it had succeeded in getting the number of signatures to require a White House response.
Actually, getting 8,000 people to sign this particular petition was a positive achievement. The White House launched the We the People website with a requirement of 5,000 signatures per petition, then increased it to the arbitrary figure of 25,000 explicitly so that they would have less petitions to deal with. If Alex’s petition had been started when the limit was 5,000, we would be celebrating the 8,000 signatures.
Also, in practical terms, publicly discussing the petition as if it was a major failure can be used in Indonesia to bolster the argument for keeping Alex in prison. Certainly let us learn lessons about how to improve our activities, including how best to translate passive support into more signatures on future petitions. But let us do so in a way that also keeps up, and indeed intensifies, the public momentum to have Alex released.
Any campaign of this nature will have more downs than ups. We have to stay optimistic during the downs, learn whatever lessons we can, and then continue to campaign. We cannot control how other people react, or guarantee a breakthrough, or know when a breakthrough may come. But we can continue to do, every day, those things that are within our control to move the campaign a little bit forward. That is how such campaigns eventually succeed.