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Questions with Gea Meijers, President of IHEYO

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Gea MeijersThis article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 11 - The SSA Around the World.

Secular Student Alliance Campus Organizer, recently interviewed Gea Meijers, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO).

Organizer: Can you tell us a little about IHEYO?

Meijers: IHEYO (the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation) is the international youth umbrella organisation for humanist, freethinker, laique, [skeptic,] rationalist, atheist, agnostic and related groups. IHEYO works with many groups and individuals around the planet to strengthen the pursuit of humanist ideals in theory and practice.

IHEYO organises annual international humanist youth conferences and international internships all over the world. It offers non-formal educational projects that combine humanism with a human rights and empowerment orientation. It represents its members in international forums (UNESCO, etc.) and supports groups and projects where possible (including projects in Africa and Asia). IHEYO creates a platform for young humanists to meet and share ideas and experiences, plan projects…and have fun!

I have been active in IHEYO since its reactivation in 2001. I became an active humanist in the Netherlands at the age of 19, mostly by mere chance. Getting involved with young humanists from around the world has made me much more aware of the need for a thriving active humanist movement globally and of the challenges we face. It also showed me that young people are absolutely interested in humanism, as long as you seriously try to interest and inspire them. Because many humanists in my country are much older, they are pessimistic about the interest of youth. I can tell that the youth are definitely interested.

Organizer: What issues are unique to international freethinking youth that are less common in America?

Meijers: You can see that everywhere, organised humanism has a somewhat different shape because of the national contexts it is situated in. What is particularly striking is the difference of humanism being put into practice or into theory and the way humanists position themselves as next to the religions or not. IHEYO has groups in India and Nepal, in African and European countries. I would characterize the regions in the following way:

In many African countries, humanism is practical and combined with taking concrete action to improve the living conditions of people. Intellectual discussions and public action against violation of human rights by religions is also part of that humanism, but in my experience less present in the actions of African humanists compared to American humanists. They more often express a need for financial support and have a strong wish to exchange internationally.

In India and neighbouring countries, being an atheist or humanist is clearly felt as being an (enlightened) minority among the majority. They also do practical work to better the condition of people just like their African friends. In my experience, Indian humanists share with American humanists a stronger focus on the atheist part of humanism, and being critical of the religions.

In Europe, where there are humanist movements in a lot of the countries, the humanist community is a diverse one. Some organisations are doing practical work like running houses for elderly, making programmes for broadcast, and some focus on the debate and on influencing their national politics. Most countries have some humanist youth activity to make youth more aware of themselves and their surroundings, in the form of summer camps, weekends, civil ceremonies, or courses in or around school.

Humanists in Europe are, or have been, alert of their role next to the religions and are striving for equality and respect for all human rights. I would say the battle for respect is fought in Eastern and Southern European countries like it is fought in the US. This is different for many of the Western and Northern European countries. These countries are quite secularised with majorities of people, especially young people, not believing. There is less need felt to define humanism as the alternative to the religions, nor a lot of focus on the religions.

I know why I am an agnostic freethinker and humanist, but when I lived in the Netherlands this specific aspect of humanism was never that highly important in being active in humanist organisation. From my own experience, I cannot recall any person being surprised or offended by me not believing, at least in the Netherlands. I think all of my friends and family have not expressed a deep-felt belief in a higher being, but I am one of the few who joined the humanist movement.

Organizer: How does IHEYO reach humanist, atheist, agnostic, and freethinking youth?

Meijers: IHEYO is a network organisation. It is a platform where humanist and likeminded groups can meet, collaborate and exchange. We organise this platform through international conferences, the internet (online forums and e-lists) and through personal contacts with groups. Being a network organisation, we can suggest groups to other organisation and give projects more profile. We also work on developing expertise useful for our groups and train them. We especially try to help groups in the South.

Organizer: What does IHEYO do to protect brave youth who 'come out' in countries where there are serious consequences for going against religious dogma?

Meijers: In 2004, IHEYO supported gay and lesbian activists in Uganda who spoke out for respect of gay and lesbian people for the first time ever at a conference in Uganda, our conference. We modestly financially supported them and offered moral support. We were alert to undertake action if the police had arrested them at that time, but the police did not do so in 2004. One of the activists was arrested and released in the Summer of 2005. One can get more information about this by contacting our secretariat.

Luckily, this is exeptional. In many countries, the police will not come and arrest you for atheism and the consequences are less severe. However, we have heard of people in Tanzania and Uganda fearing for their jobs if they came out as humanists (one of our board members had to find another job). We heard recently of someone in West Africa that had been physically harassed by fellow citizens for being critical of the church.

We seldom get messages from people living in Middle East countries. That has many reasons for sure. One of them is that there are severe consequences for people that come out as atheists in countries like Pakistan. IHEU undertook a long and tedious action to free the Pakistani Dr. Sheikh out of a death cell. He was accused of questioning the existence of Allah. He was released early 2005 and lives now in exile.

The unique support that an international organisation can give to people that are being punished for coming out is pressuring our governments and public around the world to take action towards this other society by letting know we don't approve and start dialogue with them. Practically, you can also offer moral or sometimes financial support. But in any situation you will need local organisation that can support directly. When a police officer arrests someone in, let's say, Pakistan, we can start an international alert, but how can you help the person directly when you only have phone, post and e-mail to communicate? You need partners at the ground level.

Organizer: What do you consider to be the most pressing issue to your affiliates?

Meijers: We strongly wish to exchange and work together more with our American friends. We look forward to having young American humanists stepping up into the international arena and involving themselves with the humanists in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. Although we all have our own shapes of organised humanism, the basics are everywhere the same. To strongest way forward is to join hands.
This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 11 - The SSA Around the World.

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