Stark is the contrast between the idyllic university town of Oxford, England and the places where many of the speakers at the World Humanist Congress, held there in August, toil on behalf of basic human rights. I stayed at Keble College, an ivy-covered brick complex with the requisite porter’s lodge, chapel, dining hall and secret gardens. Founded in 1870, it is modern compared to other colleges formed as early as the 13th century (although teaching in Oxford began two centuries earlier). Strolling down the cobble-stoned streets and socializing in the time-worn pubs provide the visitor with an almost other-worldly experience. Listening to activists from Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia and several African countries disturbed this tranquility with an awareness of how dangerous the world can be for those who dare to think for themselves. Their lives, families and homes have been threatened. Some have sought refuge in safer places; others risk everything daily.
The theme of the 2014 Congress was “Freedom of Thought and Expression: Forging a 21st Century Enlightenment.” There was celebration, to be sure, of the tenacity of free thought through the ages, for which Oxford was an appropriate setting. Several esteemed scholars elucidated Humanism’s history and predicted its future. There was entertainment by Humanist choruses from Norway and the UK, as well as Sanderson Jones cracking wise at an early morning Sunday Assembly, which he co-founded with Pippa Evans. Workshops highlighted the progress of Humanist communities around the world. And, as hoped, participants strengthened existing networks and forged new friendships. I was especially pleased to see Nigerian Leo Igwe and Pakistani Gulalai Ismail again; both visited NYSEC earlier this year. The Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression (http://whc2014.org.uk/oxford-declaration/) was passed by delegates on the last day.
What will stay with me, and what I bring home to you, are the words of those people whose commitment to the ideals and values of Humanism – critical thinking and education, mutual respect and compassion, human rights and social justice – put them in the crosshairs of powerful enemies.
Nobel prize-winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka accepted his International Humanist of the Year award with these words: “It’s considered virtuous by some to abduct 200 girl pupils from a sanctuary of learning in the name of a religion. . .The lesson of Boko Haram is not for any one nation. It is not for the African continent alone. The whole world should wake up to the fact that the menace is borderless, aggressive and unconscionable.” (Full speech at http://iheu.org/wole-soyinkas-international-humanist-award-acceptance-speech-full-text/)
My young friend Gulalai Ismail (photo below) founded Aware Girls when she was 16 to provide a leadership platform for young women and girls of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan. She now has ten years of experience in challenging patriarchy, gender discrimination and religious extremism. Her work promotes peace and pluralism by providing civic education to young people. As she says, “I offer a space where young women can come together and they can speak for their rights. If we can’t speak for ourselves, nothing will change.”
Finally, Leo Igwe (whom I also heard give a presentation to the London Black Atheists at Conway Hall, home of the London Ethical Society, a few days later) has been physically attacked many times for his work on witchcraft issues in Africa. “It is taken to be a dangerous occupation. It is a minefield,” said Leo. “When you are living in this situation, you need allies, you need supporters. You need people to say to you, ‘I love what you’re doing.’”
We must be their allies. We must support the work they do.
One way is to donate to the International Humanist and Ethical Union at http://iheu.org/support/make-a-donation/. Remember: We are the “Ethical” in IHEU’s name, having co-founded this organization in 1952 (http://iheu.org/humanism/the-amsterdam-declaration/). Learn more about its work around the world and consider attending the next World Humanist Congress in 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
with Gulalai Ismail, founder of Aware Girls, Pakistan