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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Collectively, we have failed Alexander Aan

Just have a look at this petition. It ended up attracting about 8,000 signatures, when 25,000 were needed for it to go any further. Why was it so hard to collect 25,000 people to sign a petition that contained no controversial detail that should have been a stumbling block to anyone? I am reluctant to sign petitions unless I agree with everything in them, and some are written with too much detail. But this wasn't such a case, and I had no compunction about signing it. My only issue was whether I should really sign it when I am not a US citizen, but nothing on the site suggested that I should worry about that.

What is at all controversial about the text?

Earlier this year, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy.

On June 14, Aan was convicted of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility,” sentenced to 30 months in prison, and saddled with a large fine. Now many Indonesians are calling for his death.

By punishing Aan, Indonesia is violating its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every person the rights to freedom of belief and expression. We petition the Obama administration to call upon the Indonesian government to immediately release Alexander Aan and improve its protections for religious dissidents and nonbelievers.

At the same time, this is a very clear-cut case of someone being harmed for expression of his view of the world.

The campaign was pushed hard by high profile organisations and people, most notably the Center for Inquiry and Richard Dawkins. Many less prominent people tried to get out the message. Could we have done more? Well, I suppose so. For example, I used this blog and other social media available to me to promote the campaign and the petition, but I doubtless could have spent a lot more of my time hammering it day in day out.

But the message was well and truly out there. In the end, there simply doesn't seem to have been much interest.

It makes you wonder...


vjack said...

I signed the petition and promoted it. My best guess as to why it didn't get more signatures was that people didn't think there was anything the Obama administration could do about it even if he wanted to, which he almost certainly would not. But that's just a guess on my part.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I eventually signed the petition, but when I first heard of it, I figured that it would be rather pointless. To be honest, I still think Internet petitions are generally pretty much useless, and I have no confidence that the one on behalf of Alexander Aan is any exception.

Rocket Stegosaurus said...

There is some precedent for believing that the White House doesn't at all take seriously the issues raised in the Internet petitions.

Greg Egan said...

Yes, we've collectively failed Alexander Aan, but if we'd got 25,000 signatures on that petition we would still not have collectively achieved anything. The White House isn't going to adjust its foreign policy on the basis of 25,000 e-signatures, even if they were all US citizens.

I did sign it myself, because it took so little effort, but as all your other commenters have pointed out it wasn't much more than a gesture, and on reflection I think it might have been a counter-productive placebo.

Amnesty has had political prisoners released from Indonesian prisons in the Suharto era with coordinated letter writing campaigns, but that often took years of persistence. Though it's certainly never been anything remotely like a sure-fire method, there seem to have been instances when the sheer physical volume of mail from all over the world has somehow unnerved dictators; perhaps the reminder that their actions are not invisible is enough, in certain marginal cases.

I doubt that anything that could be done by clicking web pages will carry the same weight, though in the present political context in Indonesia maybe a (domestic) social media response expressing outrage at this case might have some influence. Unfortunately, the popular domestic response, as the petition notes, is in the opposite direction.

Badger3k said...

You know there are more important wars to fight...like harassment at conferences and stealing emails.


(I think the attitude that the government would do nothing is a real part of it. When you have a government that will unilaterally kill it's own citizens without trial, and has a horrible civil rights problem of it's own...I think people are disgusted, frustrated, and skeptical anything will happen, so they didn't bother.)

And while my initial point was sarcastic, I do have to wonder if all the internet melodrama isn't a real distraction from instances such as this. No evidence, just my hypothesis based on what I see in my RSS feed.

GTChristie said...

First, thank you Russell for bringing the petition to our attention. I signed it, blogged it and linked to it.
We live in a world where a funky You Tube video of a cat doing something stupid can go viral -- millions of hits -- while the plight of one victim of misguided justice causes barely a blip in the public sphere. Petitions such as this are good ... let's at least try to cause a blip here and there, whether it actually accomplishes anything or not.
I was disappointed that only 7000+ out of 7 billion people actually paid attention to this issue. Indonesia actually is considered socially/politically rather liberal compared to the typical "Islamic state." All religions are protected from harassment; it's illegal for any sect to attack another sect, etc -- even if the attack is just speech. It's a well-meaning law, but obviously if you scratch the surface, it's enforcing theism, not freedom. It's unfortunate ... Aan should be freed. Technically he did violate the law, but real justice would have transcended the technicality and perhaps moved the country a little further down the road of tolerance. There's a long way to go, to have real peace, love and understanding on this planet.

greg byshenk said...

Calling it a "distraction" may not be accurate. Indeed, focusing on "harassment at conferences" and the like may be the reasonable thing to do, because it directs one's action toward those areas where it might actually have some effect.

One could easily read things such as this online petition as something like "praying for Aan", in that they may allow the actor to feel that s/he is doing something, but don't really accomplish anything.

JesseS said...

I didn't sign it, which, looking back is shameful.

For me, as for so many other people, the main reason was that, in my cynicism, I just didn't feel like the effort of registering to sign the petition was worth it when I had absolutely no belief that it would accomplish ANYTHING.

Looking back, I can see I was half wrong. On the one hand the Whitehouse still wouldn't have given a crap, still wouldn't do anything to help (its not like Obama, or at least one of his staffers, isn't aware of it, someone surely is). So on a getting him released side it was still a waste of time.

However, for Aan himself, getting that petition would have been (hopefully) a moral boost, an important show of solidarity to help his fortitude to survive this situation, and that most definitely IS worth the time it would've taken me.

Sadly, I let my cynicism get the better of me, and didn't think of that side of it till it was too late...