May 8, 2013

Defend Dissent in Bangladesh

English: Bangledesh orthographic projection
English: Bangledesh orthographic projection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The predominately Muslim nation of Bangladesh has been getting a great deal of attention in the atheist blogosphere lately and for good reason. Outraged Muslims have taken to the streets to demand that apostates and blasphemers, including atheist bloggers, be put to death for criticizing Islam. They want a new anti-blasphemy law, and as of this report from The New York Times two days ago, at least 19 people have already died in their riots.

While some mainstream news media outlets in the U.S. have acknowledged that the riots are related to blasphemy, the plight of atheists in Bangladesh and other Muslim nations has largely been ignored (see here for a notable exception). Most of the coverage I have seen has also not been particularly clear about what the rioters are seeking. This is not random violence; the rioters have demands. Their demands include more extreme penalties for anyone who dares to criticize Islam. Some are even calling for the death penalty to be used against anyone who criticized Islam. Clearly, the riots are about Islam.

Watching this situation unfold from afar has been difficult. The idea of atheist bloggers being imprisoned or killed simply for criticizing Islam is incomprehensible. I struggle even to find a reference point to understand what that would be like. Many of us feel a mixture of revulsion and powerlessness. We know that silencing people for voicing criticism is anathema to a free society, and we want to bring about a hasty end to the horrors experienced by those whose only "crime" is expressing dissent with Islam. I suppose one thing we can do is keep writing and talking about this situation so that it becomes impossible to ignore.

I have heard some atheists in the U.S. say that what is happening in Bangladesh would happen here if Christian extremists had their way. I understand their point, but I'm not sure that is completely fair. There are undoubtedly Christians here who would like to imprison or kill those of us who criticize their religion, but they are relatively few in number and lack the social structures to bring it about. In Bangladesh and other Muslim nations, this appears to be a clear and present danger that must haunt the daily thoughts of many atheists.

Imagine having to contend with the very real possibility that your next sentence could get you killed. Imagine not knowing when the angry mob would descend on your residence or place of work. This appears to be the reality for atheists in some Muslim countries.

If you have not already done so, please consider signing this petition to the government of Bangladesh.

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