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Hitchens, Jesus and Freedom: A Jailed Atheist and the Struggle Against Religious Intolerance in Indonesia

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A Christian, a Muslim and an atheist sounds like the beginning of joke. Instead, it could the beginning of a broader-based struggle for freedom of religion and belief, in the face of rising religious intolerance around the world.

Last week, I visited Alex Aan, an Indonesian atheist in jail for his beliefs. I am a Christian, and I was taken to the remote jail in Sijunjung, a four hour journey along rough, winding mountain roads from Padang, West Sumatra, by two young Muslims.

Alex is a soft-spoken, intelligent 30 year-old civil servant with a passion for science, who prepares formulas for scientific inventions in his prison cell. He exudes gentleness, expressing a simple belief that there cannot be a God when there is so much poverty, war, famine and disaster around the world. Although an admirer of Richard Dawkins' work, he displays none of Dawkins' arrogance, intolerance and aggression. He says when he is finally released from prison, he wants to study more science, but insists he has no interest in pride or money. "I want science to help people, and to make people happy," he explains.

Arrested in January, Alex has spent five months in jail, charged with blasphemy, disseminating hatred and spreading atheism. His trial is continuing, but if found guilty and sentenced, he could face the next six years in prison.

It all started when radical Muslims read about his views on Facebook. They came looking for him, and when they extracted a confession from him that he is an atheist, they beat him up before calling the police.

So why was I, a Christian, travelling thousands of miles to visit an atheist? Alex himself appeared surprised when I introduced myself, and asked me what my perception of atheism was, as if to check that I understood. I explained that although we have different beliefs, I believe passionately in freedom of religion or belief, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion or belief includes - must include - the freedom not to believe.

I visited Alex first and foremost because I genuinely believe in his cause - his right to be an atheist, and express his views peacefully, without being jailed, attacked or harassed. I was also there, however, because it is in all our interests to protect people like Alex.

Alex is the first atheist in Indonesia to be jailed for his belief, but he is by no means the only person whose dissent from Islam has drawn persecution. Religious intolerance in Indonesia is rising in a nation that has traditionally been a model of pluralism and moderation, and everyone in all parts of society is affected.

Five days before visiting Alex, I stood in a street surrounding by an angry mob shouting "Christians, get out," "anyone not wearing a jilbab (headscarf), catch them, hunt them down" and "Allahu Akhbar". The mob had blocked the road to the church, preventing the congregation from holding their Sunday service.

The church, known as HKBP Filadelfia, in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, is one of many which have been forced to close down. In Aceh this month, 17 churches have been forced to close. In West Java, many churches are denied a permit, but even those with all the necessary legal approvals face difficulties. HKBP Filadelfia, a congregation which is entirely from the Batak ethnic group, was given permission by a local court to open, but the mayor, driven by Islamists pursuing a 'zero church' policy in the area, refuses to allow it.

Until recently the congregation carried out their Sunday service in the street outside the locked church, protected by local Muslims but facing growing threats from the radicals. For the past two months, however, the Islamist mob has blocked the street, stirred up local Muslims to join them, and what should be a Sunday service becomes a Sunday stand-off.

The Sunday I was there, the atmosphere was becoming increasingly tense. The pastor, the Reverend Palti Panjaitan, tried to negotiate with the police chief, but to no avail. Eventually he gave up, giving the sign to the congregation to retreat. Later, I asked him how close we were to violence. Very close, he said, which was why he made the decision to give up because the police could offer no protection.

All this small group of Christians wanted to do was to sing some hymns, say some prayers and hear some Bible readings, on land that was legally theirs. I wondered what threat they could possibly pose to anyone. Rev. Palti has had good relations with his Muslim neighbours for years. "Intolerance is increasing," he says. "This neighbourhood used to be tolerant. The majority of Indonesians still are, but now they are passive - they don't do anything."

Growing radicalisation of a minority of Indonesian Muslims, combined with the passivity of the majority and the weakness of the government, is a cocktail which threatens to destroy Indonesia's tradition of pluralism and religious harmony. Some Islamic think-tanks in Jakarta, such as the Wahid Institute, founded by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, the Liberal Islam Network and the Maarif Institute, are speaking out for religious minorities and introducing counter-radicalisation programmes in schools and university campuses, but unless the Indonesian government tackles intolerance by upholding the rule of law and the rights of all Indonesians, such efforts may be in vain.

Perhaps the most worrying sign of extremism is intolerance towards fellow Muslims. Earlier this month, radicals attacked a lecture by liberal Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji. Shia Muslims are increasingly under threat. And the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted of all. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on 6 February, 2011 which left three people dead.

One man described how he was stripped naked, beaten to a pulp, a machete held at his throat with a threat to cut off his penis. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting "kill, kill, kill." He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim. Of the 1,500-strong mob which attacked 21 Ahmadis, only three men were arrested and prosecuted. Their sentences were between three and six months. Where is the rule of law and functioning justice?

The recent cancellation of Lady Gaga's concert in Indonesia has exposed to the world what Ahmadis, Christians, atheists and others in Indonesia have been trying to say for a while: Indonesia, once a model of tolerance and moderation, is becoming increasingly intolerant. Some people in Indonesia are starting to talk of "Pakistanisation" - not yet an accurate description of the country today, but a warning of what could come if the government and the majority of the population don't stand up to the extremists.

The freedom to choose your beliefs, and to share them with others, is the most important human right. When I met Alex Aan, we had a fascinating discussion. I talked to him about Christopher Hitchens, whom he had not read; he talked to me about Jesus Christ, whom he had.

The freedom to exchange ideas is a freedom I cherish and one he has been denied. I have different beliefs from Alex Aan, but I will give everything I have to defend his right to hold and express his views. If Christians, Ahmadis, atheists and Muslims who believe in religious freedom, mutual respect and pluralism stand up for each other, we can defeat the preachers of hate.

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