Date: Monday, February 4, 2002
Freedom of conscience and expression are perhaps the most valuable rights of any world citizen. The right to believe and express - without suppression - has been the right that has been denied and refused for hundreds of years. There have even been times in our own Republic when a suspension of these rights was warranted by the officials running the government.
There can be nothing greater, though, than to know that you are free to believe whatever you wish without fearing punishment from the government you pay to support. Thinking must remain unrestrained and unrestricted, allowed to run the gamut from the most deep, thought-provoking ideas to the most silly concepts imaginable. A population that understands that there is nothing forbidden, nothing secret, when it comes to thinking will have the greatest appreciation when it comes to their own liberty. To give a populace freedom in the area of thought, so that they can freely examine the ideas that govern their own lives, is to open the doors to progress. Men were given these rights in this free Republic and they were allowed to believe and speak as they wished -- for some time, anyway. McCarthy and Comstock, among other brutal, totalitarian officials, destroyed freedom of conscience and believed that they could force others to think like them. By threats and harassment, these cruel and malicious leaders thought they could control the people. But it is this freedom of ideas which does not necessarily make the foundation of the United States superb, but is what makes life all around the world excellent.
To this end, I come to you with a concern. The United States involvement in Asia now has brought to light pre-existing concerns. The Taliban and other Islamic terrorists have an iron grasp on the people and their rights. They do not grant rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression there. Children grow up force-fed that they are sheep and nothing more; they are told that they are incapable of questioning their authorities, that their lives are too insignificant and their minds too undeveloped. The brightness of inquisitive thought is destroyed under the regime of infamy and cruelty. There is one particular case which has moved me undeniably. Dr. Younas Shaikh has been sitting on Death Row in a Pakistan since October of 2001. His crime was blasphemy. The evidence used to gain his conviction was not obtained through reason, nor was it obtained through a fair-court. It was obtained by radical, Islamic Fundamentalists who urged the court to suppress the opinion of Shaikh. These clerics of ancient error are vicious men. They wish to destroy the flower of reason, blockade light from it, and destroy any natural inclinations towards anything non-Islamic. Shaikh is a Humanist, a lover of the life that surrounds him in this world, a supporter of freedom and equality, and one always in admiration of anyone who can improve themselves. For this, the Islamic clerics said he was unruly, and unfit to live in society. They bandaged shackles around his body, but his mind remained forever free. Shaikh deserves the adoration of every free man, for what he has put up with and for what he has endured, for the sake of freedom.
The Islamic Fundamentalists are inhumane and barbaric. They wish that the few remaining days which fill the life of Shaikh are full of pain and despair. It is true that they have claimed a part of his heart by making his days miserable, but his mind is liberated from their unrelenting dogma. Yes, their intolerable regime of inhumanity has brought upon Shaikh pain, but despair has not touched him in the slightest. Every day, the Fundamentalists will fall to their knees to pray to Allah, every word made in the effort that their god will condemn Shaikh to eternal torment for the freedom of his mind. And every day, Shaikh will rise from the bed in his cell - the few rays of sunlight squeezing through the bars of his prison - and he will believe that perhaps his short, free life was worth a thousand times more than any prolonged, mental prison that Islam could have provided him. The Fundamentalist clerics are vicious and cruel men, angered at a child's laughter, insulted at a smile, and disgruntled by freedom. Any lover of reason and compassion will find that detesting this Religious Right is not at all difficult.
It is for these reasons that I ask you to offer your support to Dr. Younas Shaikh. He is the first to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, but there are hundreds of Buddhists, Christians, and other religious minorities who are imprisoned because of the same crime. Freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are the most valuable liberties that every citizen of the world ought to be endowed with. Together, I know that the chains of tyranny can be loosened.
Update (from Wikipedia)
Dr. Younus Shaikh is a Pakistani medical doctor, human rights activist, rationalist and free-thinker. In August 2001 he was imprisoned in Pakistan under sentence of death for blasphemy. Dr Shaikh was held in the Central Gaol in Rawalpindi pending the appeals to the High Court but there was no agreement for the appeal. In July 2002 the case was referred to a referee judge. In October 2003 the judge found that the original judgment was unsound and sent the case back to the lower court for retrial.
The retrial was held in November 2003. Dr Shaikh held his own defence and was finally acquitted on 21 November 2003.
Rationalists and humanists campaigned successfully for his release, and he now lives in Switzerland. Dr. Shaikh is an Honorary Associate of Rationalist International and an Honorary member of Mukto Mona, a secular organization for Bengali humanists & freethinkers.