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11 Years in Prison for Posting on an Atheist Website?

All over the world, people skeptical of religion face profound mistreatment.

It is hard to imagine a less hateful person than Alexander Aan. Mild and soft-spoken, the 30-year-old Indonesian bureaucrat recently told Al Jazeera, in an interview conducted just outside his jail cell, “As a democracy and part of the global community, because we are not isolated from the outside world, I think we should be more tolerant. Nobody hurts anyone simply because he has different ideas.” And yet Aan is facing up to 11 years in prison for blasphemy and inciting religious hatred because he voiced his skepticism about Islam on Facebook.

In the West, the paradigms of blasphemy are fair-haired Danish cartoonists drawing the Prophet and Richard Dawkins badmouthing Yahweh. The public debate is about how to balance freedom of speech with respect for religious belief. But Alexander Aan’s case, playing out in the world’s most populous Muslim country, represents a much different global reality. Here the value at stake is not just freedom of speech, but freedom of conscience. The real contest is not between atheists and believers, but between those who affirm the equality of all persons of conscience and those who deny it.

Aan was arrested in a small town in West Sumatra on January 18 after a number of local residents assaulted him at work in an act of self-styled vigilantism. They were reacting to some of his postings on a Facebook page devoted to atheism: a note entitled “the Prophet Muhammad was attracted to his own daughter-in-law”; a comic suggesting the Prophet slept with his wife’s maid; and a status update reading, “If you believe in god, then please show him to me.”

Prosecutors have charged Aan under the Electronic Information and Transaction Law, which prohibits inciting hatred or enmity of a religious group, and under the country’s blasphemy provision, Article 156a, which criminalizes “hostility, hatred or contempt” and “disgracing” of a religion. Article 156a also prohibits attempts to persuade others to leave their religion and embrace atheism.

Aan’s small, pro bono legal team is not optimistic. The Indonesian legal system is designed for unequal treatment of unbelievers. The constitution officially recognizes the religions of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, and stipulates that every citizen must believe in a supreme being.

Desecrating Secularism

As the Indonesian activist Karl Karnadi points out, the persecution of Alexander Aan comes in the context of broader trends of “increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia which has victimized minority Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shia, Christians, Buddhists.” Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs has recently called Shia Islam a “heresy” and publicly backed provincial bans on the Ahmadiyya, who consider themselves Muslims but differ from mainstream Islam on the finality of the Prophet.

Viewed in this context, atheists’ conversations on the internet should be seen as one end of a continuum of manifestations of conscience, exercises of the capacity to grapple with ultimate questions of meaning, value, and morality. From a moral perspective, there is an important symmetry between the attitude of the believer who reserves special reverence for a deity, saint, or prophet, and the attitude of the secularist who asserts that every person is equally holy. Neither of these beliefs is uniquely deserving of being labeled a spiritual commitment, relegating the other to mere “speech” against that commitment. Alexander Aan has no less moral ground to claim that monotheism insults his sense of what is and what is not sacred. In my book The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights (Continuum, 2012), I call this “The Symmetry Thesis.”

A government that singles out some citizens’ conceptions of the sacred for official protection is guilty of a gross failure of equal treatment. This principle of equality is supported by recent developments in international human rights law. Last summer the United Nations Human Rights Committee commented that laws restricting blasphemy are inherently discriminatory because they give to traditional believers a legal protection that is not available to the religiously heterodox or secular.

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