In this new column, Bill Cooke comments on developments of concern to humanists worldwide. A longtime New Zealand humanist activist, Cooke is now a senior editor of Free Inquiry and director of the Center for Inquiry’s new Commission for Transnational Cooperation
The death sentence against Hashem Aghajari, a reformist and an academic at Modarres University in Teheran, roiled an already volatile situation in Iran. Aghajari’s crime? Saying that the people should not blindly follow religious leaders. In something of an understatement, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami called Aghajari’s arrest “inappropriate.” In December, 10,000 students took to the streets to protest the lack of basic freedoms in Iran and to call for the release of Aghajari and other political prisoners. The state encouraged the Basij, a lawless mob of religious “police” (really state-sponsored thugs) to organize violent counter-demonstrations.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, has been encouraging Iranians to undertake nonviolent protest against the Islamist regime. Pahlavi backs a secular democracy and advocates a popular referendum to choose Iran’s new system of government. Gholam Reza Mohajery Nejad, a former Iranian student leader once imprisoned and tortured and now residing in Los Angeles, says that a growing groundswell of Iranian opinion favors secularism. One symbol of the shift: Abbas Abdi, a leader of the forces that occupied the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1979, has now been arrested by Iran’s Islamic government for advocating closer relations with the United States.
Humanist Awards Worldwide
Humanist organizations in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand presented their annual awards to outstanding humanists. The Humanist Association of Canada honored novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s lifetime contribution to humanism through his novels and public statements. Australia’s Humanist of the Year Award went to Donald Horne, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales; former chancellor of the University of Can berra; and journalist, social critic, and commentator. And in New Zealand, the annual award went to Andrew Williams, a city council member in one of the country’s largest cities who challenged the practice of beginning council meetings with prayer. When this became a nationwide issue, Williams endured abuse and derision from colleagues and some members of the public. But he received an equal measure of support for his brave stand.
Tell The Truth, Get Death Threats
Telling the truth has once again gravely offended religious sensibilities, this time in the Netherlands. On a Dutch television program, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a thirty-two-year-old Labor Party researcher, described Islam as a backward religion and denounced widespread domestic violence and incest within Muslim families in the Netherlands.
Hirsi Ali criticized the veil of silence around this issue, due largely to a multicultural society’s anxiety not to criticize the practices of minority groups. The government has taken pains to ensure that Muslim immigrants receive religious and secular education in their own language, but pays scant attention to the reactionary doctrines many Muslim educators teach.
Hirsi Ali, an immigrant from Somalia, had to flee the country after an avalanche of death threats, hate mail, and abuse. She stands by her criticisms, noting that she spoke from personal experience as well as from her extensive knowledge of the Dutch Muslim community.
Center For Inquiry Makes Its Mark In Peru
Late in 2002, Manuel Paz y Miño, director of the Center for Inquiry–Peru, was interviewed on the Center’s skeptical work in El Comercio, an important daily newspaper (see http: //www. elcomercioperu.com.pe). He had also been interviewed regarding the Center’s humanist activity by Somos, El Comercio’s Saturday magazine, but the article never ran. Paz y Miño has appeared on Peruvian television, commenting on a spate of paranormal claims in Peru.
The Center for Inquiry–Peru is working to build a coalition of forces concerned about the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the country’s affairs. Paz y Miño was a signatory to several letters on church-state separation organized by the Peruvian Humanist Non-Religious Movement. These letters and their attending controversy were covered in El Comercio and La Republica. The Center for Inquiry hosted a series of lectures on these issues in January. Through all this activity, the Center continues to publish its regular magazine, Defendiendo la razón.