Last week, a government official in Malaysia urged citizens to “vehemently” hunt down young atheists whose pictures appeared on social media. They were members of the Atheist Republic whose founder, Armin Navabi, has provided a service to over a million subscribers who find inspiration and connection through his posts and encouragement. In a world where non-believers too often find themselves isolated and silenced, Navabi has created something extraordinary. The young Malaysians in the photo had gathered to celebrate the connection freedom from religion too often removes. They are now in great peril.
So I did what I do. I wrote a letter to our own government officials, the Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Affairs, and local MPs and post it here so that you might copy what you can and urge your own officials to speak out against this dangerous situation in time to stave off the kind of bloodbaths that have stained the streets of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia ….. You can find your Canadian Member of Parliament here.
Dear Ms. Freeland,
I write with deep concern for atheists and secular humanists in Malaysia. Recently, whether intentionally or otherwise, one of Malaysia’s Government Ministers, Shahidan Kassim, who is reported to be close to the Malaysian Prime Minister, incited extremists to violence against atheists, secular humanists, and ex-Muslims by challenging Malaysians to hunt them down “vehemently” and return them to the Islamic faith.
The statement from the government official was to a photograph of several young people who are members of a Facebook group, The Atheist Republic. They had gathered together to meet one another and build friendships. It was a casual and friendly gathering and, as so often happens when joy is present, photographs were taken and posted to social media.
The founder of the Facebook group is Armin Navabi, copied on this letter. He is a friend and an ex-Muslim who lives in British Columbia. Subsequent to the posting of the photograph, Armin has been the subject of threats, including a call for his beheading. Others have called for the burning alive of the members of The Atheist Republic pictured in the photograph.
In 2013, Bangladesh, despite its status as a secular state, refused to placate extremists calling for the execution of secular humanists, instead choosing to label them atheists and further incite hatred against them. In 2015, Avijit Roy was murdered by machete-wielding attackers while in Dhaka for a book fair. The editor and publisher of Avijit’s book, The Philosophy of Atheism, were both subsequently murdered. Avijit’s co-author, Raihan Abir, is a good friend. He was recognized as a refugee by the Canadian government in 2015. He and his family are now helping grow Canada and make it a better place.
The congregation I serve has received permission to bring to Canada as a refugee a Bangladeshi atheist and his family. We chose this family because the father’s photograph has been so widely distributed across Bangladesh and elsewhere that he cannot be seen outside of the place he now hides, fearing for his life. The photograph of the happy gathering of atheists in Malaysia will be used to imperil their lives and to “hunt them down vehemently” as Minister Kassim has urged Malaysian citizens to do. All their lives are now in grave danger.
We cannot stand idly by and watch Malaysia become another Bangladesh, indifferent to or even supportive of the murder of atheists and secular humanists. Canada has had a long and friendly relationship with Malaysia, dating back to the earliest days of that country’s founding. We continue to build on our sixty year history and share our Canadian values within our relationship. Those values include the protection of marginalized groups and advocacy for religious freedoms. The right to refuse religion, the freedom from religion must be just as strongly defended as the right to believe.
I urge you to reach out to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and remind him of his democratic obligations to protect all Malaysians, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. I urge you also to request that he publicly and swiftly denounce the words of Minister Kassim before they are used to spread fear, sanction violence, or lead to the murder of innocent civilians.
Thank you for continuing to be a voice for responsible leadership around the world.
Minister, West Hill United Church
Toronto, ON M1E 3T7