This letter will be sent to Alexander Aan via the Atheist Alliance International.
Since we know you’re at least somewhat aware of some of the efforts being made on your behalf around the world by folks in the secular movement, I think I can safely assume you’ve been informed of the petition my employing organization, the Center for Inquiry, launched at the website of the White House asking the President of the United States (or his administration generally) to address your situation, to speak out against the injustice you’ve been subjected to, and to pressure the Indonesian government to free you and end its persecution of nonbelievers and religious minorities and dissidents.
In order to guarantee such a response — and it was a loose guarantee at that — we had to collect at least 25,000 signatures. Alexander, I promise you, I and my colleagues truly believed this was a very achievable goal. We felt very confident that if thousands of American nonbelievers could rally in support of someone like Jessica Ahlquist, the brave young high school student who stood up for separation of church and state against her entire community, sending her good wishes, writing in support of her, and even donating money for her college education; if we could get, by some estimates, between 20-30,000 atheists from across the country to gather on the Mall in Washington, DC, in the rain, surely we could get 25,000 folks to click a couple of buttons on your behalf.
It didn’t happen, Alex. We didn’t even manage to round up 8,000 signatures. So in writing you this letter today, which I am also sharing with the readers of the blog Friendly Atheist, I am trying to work out in my own mind, and for the community’s benefit, what might have gone wrong. And also, most importantly, to apologize to you.
So first, I’m sorry. As communications director of the organization that launched the petition, I’m ultimately responsible for spreading the word about the petition and convincing folks to sign. More importantly, it’s my responsibility to share it with others. I fell very short. And that’s also despite the valiant and passionate efforts of Michael De Dora, the author and originator of the petition, and the many, many people who tweeted, Facebooked, emailed, blogged, and otherwise tried to galvanize people to do this small thing for you.
And it was such a small thing. There’s been a lot of nausea over the failure to reach the 25,000 mark at my organization, I don’t mind telling you. I mean, you’d expect us to work on a cause like yours, just as you would expect a group like the ACLU here in the States to advocate for someone whose free speech rights were being restricted, even if they disagreed with the content of the speech. But this was something more to us. Each of us, I think, felt a strong emotional connection to your plight. You are one of us in so many ways: You’re a blogger, you enjoy satire, and you dare to question what society deems unquestionable. But we are free to do those things, and we can revel in it and actively promote it without fear of serious reprisal (indeed, for many of us, it’s our job). You were beaten and imprisoned for it. Our failure to do this small thing has us heartsick.
You probably also know that we have not been idle. We organized two demonstrations to demand your release, and have been pursuing other diplomatic avenues to shed more light on your predicament. But we also hoped that a successful petition drive would make the biggest splash, that we’d get the attention of the Obama administration, wake up more of the US and international press to what was happening to you and people like you, and also help bond the community of secularists around the world who are usually so disconnected. You would be both a cause as an individual, and a symbol for something greater.
So why didn’t it happen? The reasons — or excuses — that I’ve seen bandied about most often (including in the comments section of this blog) are that 1) the White House’s petition website occasionally presented some difficulties in creating an account and logging in and 2) that people were very skeptical of the efficacy of such a petition, even if successful. I want you to know that I think those excuses would be laughable if they did not result in such an abysmal disappointment.
As for excuse 1: We were not asking for money, we were not asking anyone to travel, or march, or even write anything. All we were asking was the click of a few buttons. Why so many thousands could not be bothered to weather whatever frustrations the White House website presented, I think, speaks very, very ill of the actual commitment to social justice and basic liberties of what we want to believe is a growing and powerful movement of atheists and skeptics. If we can’t withstand the minor inconvenience of a webform, what can we ever be expected to do?
And for excuse 2: I would ask those who presume the ineffectiveness of the petition, “so what?” Click the buttons anyway. If for no other reason, it would show you, Alexander, if not our president, that we stood in solidarity with you.
I want to be clear that I know that this failure is ours, and not yours. No one who hears your story is unmoved by it. We all feel pained at your mistreatment, every one of us. What we failed to do was to inspire a sufficient number of folks to overcome some minor hesitancies to make a tiny effort. Not because of you. But because of something over here, with my inability to communicate your case, with the perceived chasm of distance (both geographic and cultural), and, I am deeply saddened to say, with a vigorously defended streak of laziness.
I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be part of the skeptic-secularist community versus the skeptic-atheist movement. We have been very proud in recent years about what seem to be encouraging upticks in our numbers: more young people, more folks coming out of the theological closet to declare their nonbelief as you did, the rise of a vibrant (and often tumultuous) universe of skeptic and atheist Internet activity, etc.
But these developments speak to the growth of a community, not of a movement. A strong movement would have garnered 25,000 signatures on a website for you in the first couple of days. So, if anything, the silver lining of this falling-short tells us something we desperately needed to know: despite the growing numbers of declared freethinkers, we have yet to find the best ways to do something meaningful with those numbers beyond gloating.
We’re not finished. The petition is history, but my colleagues and I plan to continue working on your case, and to fight even more passionately for freedom of belief and expression than ever.
I apologize to you and to those who support you. But I ask you to hold on. You are not forgotten.
My sincere best wishes, and my pledged commitment,