Monday, January 23, 2012
The Most Dangerous Place to be an Atheist
Alexander Aan was just another bureaucrat holding down a desk at the Department of Planning until his Facebook Atheism page came to the notice of Indonesian authorities in Obama’s old stomping grounds. Now Aan is facing a five year jail sentence for using social media to spread the message that Allah does not exist.
Alexander is being charged with “defiling” Islam by using passages from the Koran to challenge the Islamic religion. And while the State Department and the media routinely go on the attack against any manifestation of what they call “Islamophobia,” it isn’t likely that they will be rushing to Aan’s defense. This isn’t exactly the first time that atheists have run afoul of the Islamic codes under which the Muslim world operates. Two years ago, the Palestinian Authority arrested Waleed Hasayin on similar charges of blaspheming against Islam on Facebook. Waleed Hasayin had written that, “Muhammad was no different than barbaric thugs who slaughtered, robbed and raped women” and that “Islam has legitimized slavery, reinforced the gap between social classes and allowed stealing from the infidels, taking women in captivity during wars and sexual abuse of women slaves.”
For these and other truthful statements, he was arrested and his family demanded that he be sentenced to life in prison. He has since written a letter of apology in hopes of being released.
The regimes imprisoning Aan and Hasayin are funded by the United States. Indonesia is on the list of the top twenty countries benefiting from USAID funding and the Palestinian Authority, including its security forces and prisons, is mostly subsidized by American taxpayers. The arrests were accompanied by mob protests and violence reflecting populist Muslim hostility toward non-Muslims.
Underlying these individual incidents is a legal code that goes to the very definition of what it means to be a citizen of a Muslim country. Muslim countries recognize a limited set of legal religions. Non-Muslims who are members of legal religions have fewer rights and run the usual risks that come with being a minority group. Non-Muslims who are not members of official religions do not. This includes Muslim sects that the Islamic system does not recognize as legitimate. It includes Muslims who wish to convert to another religion, and it includes atheists who are not a recognized religious group.
Religious identity is linked to civic participation in public life in a way that most Americans are not aware of. It appears on identity cards, it is a basic requirement for doing anything from attending a university to getting married. Without membership in an officially recognized religious group, the atheist is a non-person.
But atheists no longer have to live in the Muslim world in order to be subject to Islamic rules. At Queen Mary, University of London, a public research university with roots going back nearly a thousand years, the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society attempted to hold a discussion on “Sharia Law and Human Rights.” The discussion came to an abrupt end when a man entered the room and warned that they would be murdered if they said anything critical about Mohammed.
The return of blasphemy laws to the United Kingdom has been slow, but not all that stealthy. At the University College London, the president of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society resigned after the college student union backed a Muslim student association’s complaints about a cartoon strip of Mohammed having a drink that was posted on Facebook.
The steady flow of Muslim immigrants into London has turned it into Londonistan with nearly a tenth of the city answering the Call of the Mosque. In two decades their numbers will double and with 40 percent of British Muslims polling for Sharia, it’s not difficult to see that the trajectory for atheists in London is not a very promising one.
Atheists are a minority with legal protections in the West. Which is why the majority of the signatories on the Manifesto for a Secular Middle East and North Africa were activists who had left the Muslim world and were living in Europe or the United States. The impossibility of signing a similar manifesto while living full time in Iran or Pakistan went without saying.
But as the Muslim populations of Western countries continue to grow, they are becoming dangerous places for non-Muslims, including atheists. If a dialogue on the consequences of Islamic law can be shut down with threats of violence at University College London, then it’s hard to think of any place that it cannot be shut down.
We like to think of our cities as fundamentally different places than Tehran or Islamabad, but it’s the population that shapes the character and values of a city. Demographic change means cultural and religious change and as the norms of Tehran and Islamabad become the norms of London and Paris, religious minorities and irreligious minorities will both find themselves silenced.
The trajectory of persecution is not very difficult to calculate. In the UK, Muslims outnumber Jews six to one. In France, Muslims outnumber Jews ten to one, and in Sweden by as much as twenty-five to one. These are not just numbers; they also accurately chart the trajectory of religious persecution, with the Muslim persecution of Jews spiking horrifyingly in Sweden, high in France, but not as high in England. One reason why the situation is not yet as bad as in the United States is because Jews still outnumber Muslims at least two to one.
Muslim persecution of a hated minority group increases proportionally in relation to their numerical advantage. Atheists are a larger percentage of the population in Europe, but demographics are still catching up to them. In the United States the demographic race may already be done, as far as atheists are concerned.
In the United States approximately 0.7 percent of the population identifies as atheist and 0.8 percent of the population as Muslim. If these surveys are correct then the number of Muslims in the United States has already exceeded the number of atheists. While not a single member of Congress identifies as an atheist, two identify as Muslims.
The most dangerous place to be an atheist is in the Muslim world and as its boundaries broaden, so does the threat to the freedoms and civil liberties of all.