Buffalo, New York was once referred to as the “Berkeley of the East” because of the protests that took place in this area during the Vietnam War years. Activism continues, albeit in under-publicized venues such as the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY, which hosted Michael De Dora, the organization’s director of the Office of Public Policy, to speak to a crowd of fewer than several dozen souls on July 22 about pressing issues surrounding international human rights.
De Dora advocated on behalf of Alexander Aan, a skeptic who was apprehended by the Indonesian authorities for participating in a basic tenant of human freedoms—free speech. He questioned via social media the beliefs that he was inculcated with inside of the strict Muslim household in which he was raised. His Facebook group for atheists led to a confrontation with a mob which waited for him outside of his workplace, where he was dragged outside and beaten. Shortly thereafter, an observer called the police who arrived and arrested Aan when the mob claimed that he had insulted the country’s religious sentiments and promoted atheism, and had consequently, performed two illegal acts.
Thankfully, CFI intervened with direct appeals to the Indonesian government, protests at Indonesian embassies, a letter to the U.S. State Department, as well as the filing of a petition with the White House. While campaigning for Aan’s freedom, CFI was approached by the Saudi Arabian activist, Samar Badawi, who had his brother jailed for starting an online forum dedicated to the open discussion of religion and politics. While these proceedings are noteworthy, the CFI’s most meaningful project is in Bangladesh, which is experiencing a deteriorating situation with regard to human rights. In response, public intellectuals Sam Harris and Reza Aslan have issued rousing statements. CFI has also supported local activists and reformers with funding and press attention for lobbying, and approached the American, Canadian, and some European governments to modify legislation to better protect human rights.
This was one of the best presentations I have witnessed at the CFI in the last two years. De Dora was an articulate speaker, and his observations were unexpected and eye opening. I relished the opportunity to observe a thoughtful, communicative thirty-something articulate disturbing as well as enlightening findings on the repercussions atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, and humanists face in countries outside of the United States. Hopefully, American publishers and journalists can disseminate more broadly comprehensive information about the lack of free speech protections for individuals in nations such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh.