Right now, a contentious debate over religious freedom is tearing at the social fabric of a nation, and partisans seeking to take advantage of the uproar are fueling the fires of mistrust and division.
But I’m not talking about the U.S. and arguments over contraceptive mandates and same-sex marriage. (And I’m certainly not talking about red coffee cups!) This struggle for religious freedom is taking place in Bangladesh, and the “debate” is being waged not with words and laws, but with machetes and terror.
In the past eight months, five people have been hacked to death by Islamic extremists associated with terror groups such as Ansar Bangla and al-Qaida. Each victim was targeted for writing or publishing works that advocate for secular democracy and criticize religion and fundamentalism. Many other writers have been injured in these attacks.
While this terror campaign has become a flashpoint for protest and political gamesmanship in Bangladesh, few outside the country have addressed this human rights crisis. Secularist and humanist groups in the U.S. and elsewhere have been among the few to take up the cause. My own organization, the Center for Inquiry, has launched an emergency fund to relocate and support as many of the dozens of other targeted secularists as we can, and we have already helped a number of writers to safety.
But, as serious as the bloodshed and terror in Bangladesh is, we have heard little to nothing from many of the major American conservative religious organizations that claim to care so deeply about religious freedom. And make no mistake, these murders are as ferocious an assault on religious freedom as one can find. The killers target those who do not conform to their narrow religious beliefs, and they know that the horror and fear they instill with each slaughter will not only silence their victim, but countless others who might otherwise speak out against them as well.
When asserting the right to hold no faith at all places a person on a public hit list — a list with too many names already crossed off — there is no freedom of conscience.
Whatever one’s opinion about them, conservative religious organizations in the U.S. hold enormous political power. In recent years, many have concentrated that power on the fight to grant individuals and corporations the freedom to disregard the law when it stands against their religious beliefs. Untold millions of dollars and a staggering amount of political capital have been spent so that public employees may shirk their constitutional duties in granting same-sex marriages, or that religious pharmacists can refuse to sell contraception to women.
Groups like mine vehemently oppose these efforts and will continue to do so. But surely these faith groups that claim to value religious freedom and the right to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, regardless of their theological outlook, should agree that the situation in Bangladesh is unacceptable and that no human being should have to live in fear of being killed simply for expressing dissenting views on religion.
We in the American secular humanist community are doing all we can to save lives and change the course of events in Bangladesh, from the grass roots to the halls of American and international diplomatic power. We have done the same in the past, passionately and proudly, when conservative Christian groups asked for help supporting their fellow believers, like Asia Bibi in Pakistan and Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan. But we can only do so much. Our resources and reach are limited, and frankly dwarfed by those of American churches and conservative Christian organizations.
So we’re asking for their help. Join us in confronting this human rights atrocity. Use your political influence to demand that the U.S. government pressure Bangladeshi authorities. Use your resources to save the freethinkers and religious minorities running for their very lives. Use your cultural influence to rally grass-roots support from your own legions of supporters. These persecuted need you now.
Here in the United States, secular humanists and religious conservatives will continue to fight over our own battleground of “religious liberty” — the reproductive rights of women, the equal treatment and dignity of our fellow LGBTQ citizens and, yes, the consciences of religiously conservative bakers. But as that plays out, right now in Bangladesh, dissenters are being butchered in the street for exercising the most basic of human rights: merely speaking their conscience. Help us defend that religious freedom. Help us save them.
And forget about the color of the coffee cups.