Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is the founder and CEO of Ideas Beyond Borders, a non-profit organization based in New York. We recently connected on Twitter and Faisal was telling me about a project to rebuild the library of the University of Mosul in Iraq that had been destroyed by the Islamic State or ISIS during the war in Iraq.
It’s been almost four years since ISIS was expelled from the city of Mosul, but life is still far from normal at the University of Mosul, where students pass bombed-out departments on the way to class that have yet to be replaced.
The central library—once among the largest in the Middle East with over a million books in English and Arabic—has become a symbol of the devastation suffered by the whole city, its charred columns and scorched shelves a stark reminder of the education blackout imposed under the occupation by ISIS.
I spoke to Faisal on July 15th and recorded our conversation. He described the project to bring back the books and computers that began in 2017. Book by book, the library is being rebuilt: by 2021, IBB has donated more than 4,000 books and 20 computers and printers to the University.
We also talked about the project to translate English-language Wikipedia articles into Arabic for the Arabic Wikipedia that we covered in FIR 188 in October 2019, a project at the heart of IBB’s work to address misinformation and “to make the inaccessible, accessible.”
And Faisal speaks of the mission of Ideas Beyond Borders, to champion a positive alternative to the extremism, authoritarianism, censorship, and violence that plagues the Middle East.
Neville Hobson: I have on Zoom, from New York actually, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who’s the founder of Ideas Beyond Borders. Pleasure to meet you virtually, Faisal, welcome to our podcast.
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Thanks for having me.
Neville Hobson: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. We’re going to talk about the Mosul University Library project. It is most interesting what I’ve read about this particular project and how you addressed the destruction of this immense library by ISIS in that time. Could we start our conversation by, just introduce yourself and tell us about Ideas Beyond Borders and how you got it started?
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: The mission of the organization is making inaccessible information accessible. Unfortunately, there’s very little content available on the internet in Arabic, and what’s more unfortunate is that there’s very little factual content available in Arabic. Most of the ecosystem for information is either state-sponsored, government-owned media or militia-owned media. Most of the exposure and most of the information that people have access to is really charged with a lot of conspiracy theories. A lot of politics. A lot of sectarian narratives, and obviously not all countries are the same, but with many countries that are affected by war like Iraq, like Syria, et cetera, that is really the common theme.
That’s my life story. I grew up under Saddam Hussein as a child and a teenager. One thing that I didn’t know was Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was in 2005. I saw a documentary by National Geographic, and it was about the story of the first Gulf War, and I went to my dad, and I was like, “What? Iraq invaded Kuwait?” He’s like, “Yes, we did, but if I told you, and you told everybody else, then we would be all in trouble.” The way we were taught in school, which was state-owned, all of it was controlled by the Ministry of Education, is that they told us that Israel and the United States invaded Iraq with the help of Britain, et cetera, and 33 countries, and we won that war, and it’s called the mother of all battles.
So this is really the ecosystem of information that used to be in Iraq, and then we moved from two state controlled television, two media channels, to a thousand that are all controlled by different political parties, so we moved in a way, I could say, from 1984 to a brave new world, from state-controlled truth to post-truth world, in which every city and every province has a very different version of reality. The ultimate goal of IBB is actually to get people to critically think and also have different perspective and be exposed to information that otherwise they wouldn’t have accessible easily.
Neville Hobson: That’s interesting. I don’t think many people would realize the scope or scale of what you just said actually until they hear what you have said. I think I’m reminded of a project you were involved with that we talked about on this podcast in 2019, which was the translation of English language content on Wikipedia into Arabic for Arabic Wikipedia. If I recall, I read a story about this in The Guardian newspaper that reported on it, as many media did, that addressing misinformation was a key part of this.
Now, thinking about what you’ve been involved with recently with replacing the destruction of the university library with new content, was this something that was a major part of what you were trying to address as well, the misinformation and providing verifiable, factual information in its stead? Would that be part of that too?
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Definitely. We partnered with, in fact the head of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, wrote an article saying that Arabic Wikipedia is one of the least represented and one with the least amount of information compared by the amount of speakers, even though it’s heavily visited, but most of the content has been politicized. Most of it touches on Islamic history and things like that, but nothing much about science, nothing much about literature, philosophy, et cetera.
I’ve contacted them, and we have assembled a team of roughly 120 people that by now translated 21,000 articles, so we add about 500 to a thousand articles a month these days, and with the University of Mosul, actually a significant amount of the translators that work with us on the Wikipedia program, come from Mosul and live in that area. One of the things that they demanded after the destruction of their library and destruction of the university as a whole is that they like books.
They are in the process of constructing the library in terms of physically, but they liked the books, scientific books, academic books, et cetera, and for ages they have been really demanding as much help from international organizations and development agencies, but they were not able to logistically do them and considering we have a very strong presence in these areas and mainly in Mosul, we were able to do it. We just finalized the project. We donated to them roughly about 4,000 books and 20 computers. Also, we built them small little libraries in which people can give books and take books, so in that way we encourage the habit of reading and getting to know more about the world.
Neville Hobson: That’s terrific. That must provide a lot of hope to people who look at the remnants of what happened in that war in Iraq, the burned out buildings and destruction, this provides a lot of hope I would say.
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Definitely. That is one of the really… On the emotional part is that one of the main messages and emails that I get from students is that they feel hurt, and they feel that other parts of the world don’t care about them. That’s really what ISIS has unfortunately done to many of these areas, is that they isolated the people from being connected to the world. One of the main things they did, they shut down the internet. They didn’t allow people from Mosul to contact people from other provinces, leave aside other countries.
Now they are in their effort to really be connected to the globe and that is one of the efforts they tried to achieve that because many of the people feel very isolated, and they think that the world doesn’t care about them. That is where we came in, and then other organizations are trying to change that and really provide a lot of hope to people. I’m very optimistic really with the… I think, ISIS in a way, if there was something positive about it and there’s nothing positive about it, but if there’s one thing is that it was really a wake-up call for a lot of people to reject extremism, to be open to different perspectives and reject the sectarian narrative.
There’s a lot of energy with the youth in Mosul, even a lot of the adults who really have lived under authoritarianism. They’re sick and tired of it, and they want something else. That’s I think a message that really the world needs to hear.
Neville Hobson: Yeah, I think it’s a pretty powerful message. Finally, tell our listeners if anyone’s interested in learning more about Ideas Beyond Borders, generally, but specifically about this, where would they go to get it online?
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Our website, IdeasBeyondBorders.org and the blog. Our website in Arabic is BaytAlHikma2.org, so that is the House of Wisdom that used to be the center of translation, and now we’re doing the digital version. So that’s where people can access a lot of our content, translated books, videos, et cetera. That’s where our distribution network is, and we have about 4.8 million followers across the Middle East and North Africa and in English go to IdeasBeyondBorders.org.
Neville Hobson: Fantastic. Faisal, thank you very much for your time today, and good luck with everything you’re trying to achieve in Iraq and elsewhere.
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Neville Hobson: Yeah, my pleasure.