NYC activist who changed Middle East minds targets Afghanistan
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar watched in horror as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this week.
As a refugee who fled Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq, the 30-year-old activist now lives in New York City and has spent his life trying to spur freedom in the Middle East.
Despite two decades of military support, he believes the US failed to fortify the Afghan people with a democratic ideology that would sustain their battle for freedom.
“People can’t fight for democratic values if they don’t know what democracy means,” said Faisal, the founder of the pro-liberty organization Ideas Beyond Borders, which spreads democratic ideas to the Middle East. “This was one of the biggest failures of the intervention.”
Born in Iraq in 1991, Faisal grew up under the repressive dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Despite widespread censorship and fundamentalism, his father, an orthopedic surgeon, taught him English and the importance of critical thinking.
“He raised me not just to accept the facts, but to think for myself and develop my own point of view,” he said.
In his early teenage years, civil war meant he had to hunker down at home to stay safe. During that time, he read Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” as well as classical liberal Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, Voltaire and John Stuart Mill.
“I found their ideas very relevant,” Faisal said. “They were fighting against theocrats and tribalism, and the Middle East is in the same place today. I developed an interest not only in these thinkers but in the idea of making their values available to those around me who were completely sheltered from them.”
At just 15 years old, he realized there were no good Arabic translations of the Bill of Rights, so he spent several months making one himself and handed out printed copies among high school friends. Living under a regime with blasphemy laws, he found the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedoms of speech and religion fascinating.
Soon after, he started blogging about his classical liberal views, exposing the lack of critical thinking in his society. At first he wrote under his own name, but he was forced to go anonymous when al Qaeda began kidnapping and killing pro-freedom activists.
But that didn’t deter him.
“I became desensitized to people getting killed,” he said. “After a while, the cost of not speaking out was higher than the cost of speaking out.”
In the blogosphere, he found a like-minded community and his pro-freedom network grew.
Then, at age 18, a classmate reported him to al Qaeda for dissenting beliefs, which landed him on a death list. Because his eldest brother had already been kidnapped and killed in 2007 for collaborating with the American military in Iraq, he chose not to tell his parents to protect them from worry.
He said he avoided leaving the house for anything but school and survived multiple kidnapping attempts by al Qaeda-affiliated militias. As soon as he graduated from high school, he flew out of the country for good. Fortunately, the Baghdad airport had not yet fallen under al Qaeda’s control.
He hopped from Lebanon to Malaysia and was ultimately granted refugee status to the United States in 2013. Two years later, he reunited with his parents when they also moved to the States. But Faisal never lost touch with his mission to arm people back home with pro-freedom ideas.
In 2017, he founded the organization Ideas Beyond Borders, which gives citizens living under repressive regimes access to untranslated and censored information. Though their headquarters is based in New York City, their staff of 120 is spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The organization translates Wikipedia articles related to critical thinking, liberty, science and pluralism, and publishes free translations of books like “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill and “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker. The group primarily translates into Arabic but has also expanded to Kurdish, Farsi and Pashto to reach the broadest possible audience.
Ideas Beyond Borders also produces original podcasts and videos that challenge violent extremism in creative ways, often by highlighting local role models. Recently, they donated 4,000 books to a university library in Iraq that was destroyed by ISIS.
So far, the site has 5.2 million subscribers and reaches 40 million viewers mainly aged 16 to 35 in the Middle East and North Africa, with their largest followings in Iraq and Egypt. The content is mobile-friendly and easily accessed with the use of VPNs and encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram.
“The younger generation has lived through multiple forms of authoritarianism, and they are looking for an alternative to theocrats and dictators,” he said. “The mission is to make the inaccessible accessible.”
Faisal said his inbox is constantly flooded with e-mails from young people whose lives have been transformed by an article or book he gave them access to.
Now his next mission is to expand into Afghanistan.
Ideas Beyond Borders is actively interviewing and hiring many of the same Afghan translators the US military once employed. Working in Afghanistan, they will translate relevant texts into the local languages of Dari and Pashto in order to spread the message of liberty and critical thinking to their fellow citizens.
“We need to change the ecosystem of information the Afghan population has access to,” Faisal said.
It needs to “come from within rather than by force.”