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Richard Dawkins making his books free in Islamic countries is a vital stand against religious and state censorship


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On various occasions either in the centre of my University Campus or on the High Street of the city, I have been accosted by the now expected barrage of leaflets and faux-friendly people wielding them.

The most interesting subsection of this group is the religious: those who think that a brightly coloured flier and an amenable disposition is enough to prove the existence of their universal claims of reality. But I never begrudge the theatre of it. To record I have been stopped by three Anglicans (in their characteristically sheepish modesty), one Pentecostal christian, and a placid Hindu who was kind enough to provide me with a free book. Having taken the copy of the Bhagavad Gita home I was so disappointed reading its many typos and interminable commentary that I left it alone. However much I was disappointed and unconvinced of the truth of the Hindu proselytizer's claims, I nevertheless never forgot the gesture. 

Recently Richard Dawkins has decided to translate his books into Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, and Indonesian and allow for their free download in PDF format. The first book to be translated will be the River out of Eden, a book explaining the Darwinian theory of evolution. The purpose of this is to continue what Dawkins has identified as a "stirring towards atheism" in Islamic countries. The importance of such an act cannot be understated. Rather than stopping people in the street to ask "have you considered the truth of Darwinian natural selection and how it undermines the scientific claims of the Bible?"; or knocking on doors to exclaim 'have you heard the good word of Betrand Russell?"; or better still to take it upon himself to clad himself in his academic gown and dance in the street with an assortment of other professors and percussion instruments chanting "evo-lution, evo-lution, lution-lution, evo-evo..."; instead he has set up a table in the cavernous space of the Internet and allowed people to sidle up and take a free book.  

World Renowned Biologist and Atheist Richard Dawkins

To confirmed or nascent atheists, skeptics, free-thinkers, and even Muslims who believe in the free interplay of ideas, such an action is a relief from often suffocating religious and state censorship. Avoiding the most obvious examples of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia (168th, 165th, 139th, and 124th respectively on the World Press Freedom Index) I will focus on the less obvious cases. In Oman, a gulf country with little attention paid to it, bookshops are almost non-existent. Books and authors are often banned from the only book fair the capital city hosts, while racist fabrications such as The Elders of the Protocols of Zion remain. In the case of Dawkins' books only 'analysis' of his work is permitted, not the original books. Furthermore the Oman penal code lists blasphemy as a punishable offence for a prison sentence up to three years. This charge has been leveled against writers such as Hassan Al-Basham for the full three years. 

Moving to East-Asia Bangladesh provides another perilous country for the freedom of thought and religious skepticism. Over the past years Bangladesh has been facing internal and internecine violence directed against atheist and skeptic bloggers. The most famous example of censorship in Bangladesh is of Taslima Nasrin a self-described feminist and secular humanist who also worked as a physician. After enduring violence, a campaign for the death penalty to be used against her 'blasphemy', and state persecution for her writing she managed to escape Bangladesh and now lives in exile. Her books are most often read and distributed through piracy. Writing to Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Nasrin wrote "I have, in fact, spoken in favour of humanity and humanism for as long as I remember. Then why have you turned me into an untouchable? From which humanitarian pedestal have you closed the very doors of my country on my very face?".

Exiled Writer and Feminist Secular Humanist Taslima Nasrin 

These are just two of many possible cases (Nigeria, Mauritania, Egypt, Qatar, Philippines, etc.)  in which the works of someone like Richard Dawkins is a small shelter from the continual shrapnel free thinkers must avoid daily. The reason for why books and words against religion is so explosive, and repressed so decisively in many countries is because religion and politics are mixed. By protecting religion, neo-colonial monarchs in the Gulf, or Islamist appeasing politicians in East and South Asia can protect their political standing. Modest actions towards the free movement of thoughts across boundaries, of exchange unfettered by political or cultural restriction, is all that can give hope to those who have no patch of ground to let their thoughts grow. As Taslima Nasrin writes: 

"Drag the world into the open and tell it,
Let it give you a spot there to stand, to give you a home there,
From now on let the bit of unwanted piece of earth be yours
That remains as no one's once the borders of a land close."

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