He gets a lot of requests from around the world to give lectures, but he recently turned down an offer from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia for a sensible reason: He’s an atheist.
As an avowed atheist, I could be considered a terrorist, according to a 2014 public declaration by the Saudi Interior Ministry. The declaration defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
I’m sure that there are plenty of closet atheists in Saudi Arabia, and they are probably doing just fine. But as a vocal advocate of atheism and rationalism, and as a humanist and a proponent of human rights (including the rights of women), I cannot accept an invitation from a country that sees me as the enemy.
He’s absolutely right that Saudi Arabia is no place for atheists. In 2014, the government introduced regulations that criminalized “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.” Advocates for godlessness, then, were in the same camp, facing the same punishments, as terrorists.
Even if LeCun wasn’t speaking about atheism at the school, why accept an invitation from a place where other people like him face the death penalty? He was under no illusion his lecture would have any effect on the nation’s draconian rules. But “a public refusal is a stronger way to make a stand against atheist discrimination.”
Incidentally, LeCun said the invite came from a “non-Saudi researcher” and not a government official. So it’s not like the government was softening its anti-atheist stance.
(Remember: Raif Badawi, a man charged with blasphemy and sentenced to ten years in jail plus 1,000 lashes, remains in a Saudi prison to this day.)
LeCun also pointed out that he wouldn’t say no to all countries with policies he disagreed with, but this was different.
Many of my lectures are available on the Web to everyone in Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps I’m naïve, but not enough to believe that my giving a lecture there would make any difference.
If I refused to visit all countries whose policies include things I disagree with, I would not go to many places.
I have lectured in countries whose governments are not democratic, or whose policies I dislike. I do think that dialog, education and science can help move these countries in the right direction. And I will certainly not refuse to talk to someone simply because I don’t like the government of the country they come from.
But there are countries whose very structure is contrary to principles I hold dear, and whose practices and mores I find profoundly repulsive. I will not visit them, even if they don’t have policies that classify me as some sort of intellectual terrorist.
I’m glad he’s taking this stand. There may be an argument that more voices of reason in a place like Saudi Arabia are a good thing, but there’s no reason to visit a country that actively criminalizes unpopular thought.
(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Brian for the link)