Announcing the Secular Underground Network!
Avijit Roy was an American citizen when he was brutally murdered in the streets of Bangladesh. He was a well-spoken, highly educated engineer and blogger. It was supposed to be just a short trip to a book fair when he met his end by machete in front of his wife.
It was because he dared question religion in public.
It was because he was an atheist.
This event and countless others like it are the driving force behind the International Association of Atheists. There are thousands and thousands of atheists all around the world suffering persecution. They fear for their lives simply because they don't subscribe to the idea that there is a higher power.
Two of our co-founders, Bridget Gaudette and Courtney Heard, have received countless emails, messages, tweets and DMs from these atheists in danger. From the moment we joined the public discourse talking about atheism, these messages would pour in. Begging for help, these non-believers would relay story after story of horrific abuse, threats, arrests and alienation. With what little power we had at the time, we felt utterly helpless.
We are so happy to finally announce to you today that we are no longer helpless.
Today, we introduce you to SUN (Secular Underground Network).
SUN has one main goal: to help atheists in danger.
It's how we're going about it that is different from all efforts before us. We want to work with all the other organizations who help atheists. We want to find a way to pool our resources, work together and make the process of rescuing an atheist in danger more efficient.
Take, for example, the case of Water Spirit. This is a name she gave herself as she must remain anonymous to save her life. She was raised in a Muslim-majority country notorious for mob-violence in response to apostasy or blasphemy. After successfully pursuing a STEM degree, Water Spirit questioned her religion and found she could no longer believe. Forced to act like a believer, she found solace in online groups for atheists. When she accidentally posted a public comment on one of these pages, a local acquaintance saw it, took a screenshot and shared it with everyone. Despite denials it was her, Water Spirit received threatening and angry messages. She knew she would also have to marry soon if she were to remain in her country.
In her own words,
I decided to leave the country as soon as possible. I contacted some international secular and atheist organizations. I got in touch with Gail (President of International Association of Atheists). Gail discussed options to leave the country with me. She also provided a referral letter. I applied for a country where chances of getting a visa refusal were negligible, and I could afford the travel expenses to that country. I am in that country now. My first appeal for asylum is already rejected; the case is in court now. I have spent all my savings. Gail helped me financially, as well. I am learning the language, trying to find work. COVID-19 has worsened the situation. But I have never felt as free and hopeful as I do now. I don't have to worry about that online blasphemy issue, stalking, and threats from a class fellow or forced marriage. For more than 20 years of my life, I was in a situation resembling house arrest. I have never been to a park alone. Now, I can go for a walk whenever I want without having to ask permission. There is nothing more beautiful and precious than freedom. It is worth fighting for. It is worth living for.
If you would like to read the rest of Water Spirit's story in her own words, click here.
Water Spirit contacted several organizations, at which point, each organization that wished to help her would have had to start down their own path to do so. With SUN, we are working to develop a system that will allow us to know what one organization is doing so we can supplement that effort rather than double it. Once this program is in full force when someone like Water Spirit contacts any org, we all get notified, and we all work together. One organization can offer funds, while another can give access to an immigration lawyer. Yet another might be able to provide counseling or life coaching. Another still could give her an online space to connect with like-minded people.
We feel that pooling our resources and developing a streamlined system to help people like Water Spirit will enable us to help more profoundly and effectively.
While we develop this system, SUN is working on the cases of several people, including Water Spirit, who now resides in a country that has become more fundamentalist since she arrived.
This country is over 90% Muslim. According to Human Rights Watch, numerous bloggers, journalists and activists have had unfounded charges brought against them. Many of these people are now incarcerated.
Amnesty had similar comments about the country Water Spirit currently resides in.
We do not want to name this country for fear of bringing attention to Water Spirit.
The problem with working on cases like these is that the person at the center of the case must remain anonymous. We cannot release any identifying clues as to who they are or where they are located, and that makes it extremely difficult for us to raise money to help them. Donors respond to individual stories, faces they can relate to. We can't share any of this, and in most cases, the most we can say is that we're "working on a case."
The fact remains though: this is one of the most expensive projects that organizations like ours work on. We sometimes have to pay for transport, accommodation, food and other living expenses as we work to get the person to safety. Filing fees for asylum applications and endless piles of paperwork are needed. Sometimes we have to pay for immigration lawyers and defense lawyers.
The process of saving an apostate from certain death is not cheap and it's the most difficult thing to raise money for because we cannot give you any identifying information - the stuff that usually grabs the attention of potential donors.
Today, we are ecstatic to announce SUN, but the truth is, we accomplish nothing without you. We need your support to bring people like Water Spirit to safety.