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.