Alexander Aan petition falls short

The petition to the White House to intervene in favour of Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan fell massively short of its target of 25,000 signatures. I discussed this briefly yesterday on my personal blog, and I’ll reproduce the post in full here:

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.

My commenters have tended to express some cynicism as to whether the petition would have done much good in any event. However, these same commenters have indicated that they signed it, themselves, so they must have thought a signature was at least worth something. I can’t really see any downside – or rather, I don’t see how it could have been counterproductive in any way if the 25,000 signatures had actually been reached.

However, this looks like a pathetic effort, with only about 8000 signatures being gained. Apart from the fact that it does Aan no good – if anything, it looks as if people in the West don’t care much about his plight – what does it say about the secularist movement?

In a post that has appeared this morning, Kimberly Winston wonders what happened:

In addition, numerous atheist bloggers and authors promoted it, including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. [Michael] De Dora [of the CFI] estimates signature requests reached between 250,000 and 500,000 people.

So why were so few moved to action? De Dora received emails from some saying a petition would have little effect – especially one aimed at a president who already has enough religious headaches in an election year. In addition, Aan’s arrest did not attract widespread media attention, so many people may not have recognized his name. Others reported technical problems with the We The People website.

“Beyond that I am at a loss for an explanation,” De Dora said. “I simply do not know why it is the case we reached so many people and so few people signed the petition.”

The petition’s failure has exposed another paradox of the nontheist community. In recent years, it has made an organized effort to promote its members as compassionate, caring and concerned about justice. The unofficial motto “Good without God” has been used to rally support for charitable organizations, food banks and blood drives, services for the homeless and disaster relief efforts.

“It is one thing to talk about ‘Good without God’ and have panel discussions about secular ethics, but it is quite another to take all that and make it part of your moral fiber and make a habit of doing good,” De Dora said. “I think that is something the community still needs to work on.”

I don’t know that the last bit is quite right – it’s not a matter of whether or not we habitually do good (I’m sure that most people in the community De Dora is talking about do good things every day in their own lives, just as most other people do). But there does seem to be a question as to why, as a community, we are not sufficiently politically engaged, or perhaps sufficiently idealistic, to rally around a cause that you’d think we could all agree on, regardless of whether we agree on economic policy, sports funding, labour relations laws, gender issues, how hard/soft to be toward religion, or anything else that might cause arguments. I can’t believe that sheer laziness was the problem, as signing off on the petition was actually easy and took only a few minutes – and nothing on the site gave an impression that it would be otherwise.

In the event, we have not only missed a chance to do some good for Alexander Aan (however remote that possibility was); we have made it look as if the secularist movement is a toothless tiger. If we can’t rally 25,000 people to sign a carefully drafted petition that contains no scary detail that ought to put anyone off … well, what can we do? How can we expect to have any political clout at all in these circumstances?

There will have to be some soul-searching after this.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I can offer a few speculations. Firstly, it’s late summer in the northern hemisphere, and all activism tends to be phlegmatic during summer months. Second, the petition was targeting the Obama administration instead of the Indonesian government directly, as would surely have been more natural. And, thirdly, many atheist bloggers have been focused on other matters as of late, and publicity can only focus on one matter at a time.

    What I am somewhat worried about is if this goddamned internal bickering has had a detrimental effect. If you are busy stigmatizing someone as a misogynist or a troll or, for that matter, a bully, it would be counterproductive to admit that they have said something that can be agreed with. It would be very unfortunate if people couldn’t get behind a cause because it has been supported by the wrong people.

  2. I was just thinking, maybe all the petty in-fighting has been distracting everyone.

    And I am definitely among those critical of FTB and Skepchick. However, I certainly would not side against a cause simply because they are for it. Hopefully they wouldn’t either.

  3. I wonder if it was because you had to register on the White House website.

    I must admit; at first glance I thought that I couldn’t sign it as I’m not an American (although it did let me sign the petition). Perhaps they thought it would take too long to register, or didn’t want to be registered on yet another site (especially that of the US Government).

    This might be another reason.

    All bad excuses, of course.

  4. I hesitated to sign it for the same reason, i.e. not being American, but went ahead anyway. I wonder how many people who ended up signing it were not Americans. If it’s a large proportion, that makes things even worse.

  5. I hope the Whitehouse petition had a lot to do with it. Otherwise this is for sure a missed opportunity. Where are all those that bitch and moan about religion and Islam and Christianity? They must have better things to do. For now I put it down to the petition and hope that atheists can gather better than this when someone stands up for freedom of belief. This Alex was particularly courageous I thought too, and deserves way more support.

    I wonder if those in the position to do more, did enough? I note Dawkins didn’t mention Alex in the final week. Not a tweet. It needed to be daily and with gusto.

    And where are the Australian Independents? Not a word from any of them. “Soul-searching” needed for sure if this US petition is a sign of the support atheists give to those considering breaking free of religion.

    Here is another petition that is non-US and has 750 more signatures needed.

  6. Richard Dawkins was going at it pretty hard throughout. If he dropped off in the last week, I can only assume there were other things occupying him – he’s an incredibly busy guy, and we can’t expect him to do it all. I don’t think we can send blame his way when huge numbers of people must have seen all his messages yet were unresponsive.

    But more generally, yes, this was a disappointing response and we should all take it to heart.

    I’ll have a look at the non-US petition you linked to. Thanks for that.

  7. I didn’t mean to dis on Dick. He does a lot for sure and I am a big fan. But I wonder about priorities here and ask could those in a position to do more (eg 430,000 followers), do more? Anyone with a voice that gets heard needs to do more in my opinion. To me also possibly a precedent with it. Not just about a man but an issue, and I would have expected it to be given a much higher priority and much more attention.

  8. I think how to get to 8k isn’t a question we’ve ever been able to answer. Let alone 25k.

    e-Petitions are likely an area where the instincts of non-experts are way off.

    If this was a banner ad then our Click-through Rate —8k out of 500k = 1.6%— “would be considered very successful” according to wikipedia (and my maths) :

  9. I signed the non-U S site while I was waiting for the
    Whitehouse verification email, Im hoping the non-US
    petition did some justice!

  10. As I pointed out on Metamagician, it is not clear to me that failing to act on the petition is not the most rational act. After all, it seems that everyone recognizes that the chance of the petition having any effect at all is effectively zero. This means that it is similar to a religious groups’ “praying for Aan”; it may give the actor a feeling of agency, but in fact accomplishes nothing.

  11. I for one don’t agree that the petition had no chance of making a difference. Human rights activism has always been a slow and often frustrating business, but we know from experience that in the long run, persistent work leads to incremental improvements. And there’s the matter that declarations of hopelessness tend to be self-fulfilling.

    It’s certainly true that signing an online petition is not doing much. If people really wanted to make a difference, that would mean educating yourself about the situation in Indonesia and the international treaties that apply, writing letters directly to the authorities in Indonesia, donating to organizations in Indonesia that work with these kinds of things – in other words, a significant investment of time, effort and possibly money. If we would sign an online petition and then proceed to pat ourselves on the back for being such champions of social justice then we would be deceiving ourselves. But the situation here is that people did not get involved at all. The petition might have been minimally useful, but complete passivity is certainly not better – at least, if we pretend to give a damn about freedom of speech, the well-being of our fellow human beings and other such matters. So the question is if not doing anything was consistent with our values.

  12. I hesitated to sign the petition not because I’m not a US citizen, but because it asked me “create an account” or some such thing. Normally, I try to limit the sites that have any of my information. I did, however, go back and sign it because the issue was well worth it.

    Honestly, it never even occurred to me that the petition wouldn’t get enough signatures. It certainly appeared like an open/shut case…. Had I realized, I would have done a bit more like telling more friends and family about it and such.

  13. Miika, even granted that “in the long run, persistent work leads to incremental improvements”, the petition in question wasn’t that, nor even part of some long run process that might lead to improvement. Which means that you are saying that, if the petition had been something else than what it was, then it might have had a chance of making a difference. Which may be true, but provides no reason to sign the petition as it actually was.

    I recognize the feeling that one must “do something” when one sees something wrong. But unless that “something” will actually help to accomplish your goal, then it is, at best, an empty gesture.

  14. Hmm. I must admit that I didn’t sign the petition. Not because I don’t care about Mr Ann’s plight, but I would say because this seemed like a strange way for me to demonstrate that concern. I’m a Scotsman living in New Zealand. If I want to try to influence domestic policy in Indonesia, I have a choice of several governments to petition, but none of them are in the USA. It just makes no sense for me to reroute my protest in that manner – or at least, it didn’t seem to make sense when I thought about it.

    As for why more US citizens didn’t sign, we can but speculate, but could it be partly due to fears that Aan’s prospects of escaping resurgent conservative Islam may not lie with backing from the US government? Without knowing more about the political situation in Indonesia, it’s hard to say whether this would be helpful or counter-productive to his prospects. If we’re concerned with helping the guy, rather than turning him into a cause celebre, a bit of thought has to be given to how this is best accomplished. And sometimes quiet behind-the scenes diplomacy works better than sounding the trumpets.

  15. Nobody told me. I would have signed but I didn’t know about it.

  16. Atheists, Morality and Distant Others | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 21, 2016 at 11:11 pm

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