Welcome to Ideas Beyond Borders

Author: Omar Atatfa

With the variation and multiplicity of sources of information and ideologies, ease of access to social media, and the conventional and extremist ideologies lurking around the corner, the need for critical thinking skills becomes a must.

However, in Iraq, it is not something taught in schools or universities despite the urging need for such skills. Realizing this gap, IBB jumped in to do all that is possible in multiple places in Iraq, exploiting the youth’s desire to differ and excel. The project started with Babylon and Najaf and the plan is to reach as many cities as possible. The main goal is to fight extremism, pinpoint misinformation, and help Iraqi youth cope with the modern world. One of the main reasons why IBB seeks to implement the ideas of critical thinking in Iraqi youth’s minds is to prevent extremist ideologies from taking over.

In war-torn Iraq where these types of ideologies keep looking for new young brains to wash, IBB saw it as a challenge to fight back and to enable the young men and women of Iraq to be able to stand in the face of extremism wherever they may be found and spread awareness about the necessity of co-existence, tolerance, and respect for the difference of opinions. This shall help those youth become better leaders in the near future, replacing the traditional types of leaders who mostly depend on religious, sectarian, or tribal bases, leading to an inevitably corrupt system that favors certain social or political groups over others.

Misinformation is yet another major reason in IBB’s endeavor to build critical thinking for the Iraqi youth. Even though there is an independent project which currently works on fighting misinformation, the critical thinking workshops partly aim at enabling attendees to recognize embedded ideological orientations and biases in the information they are exposed to on a daily basis which lead to unfavorable consequences. In post-2003 Iraq, the corrupt governments which succeeded one another, and the extremist foreign-backed entities have been able to create their own media (TV channels, radio stations, social media pages, etc.) dispersing information that mainly serve their ideologies and affiliations. Hence, misinforming and/or disinforming the audience and reproducing and keeping power, resulting in a divided and distorted society.

The third reason which IBB sees as significant in enabling Iraqi youth’s ability to think critically is to help them cope with the modern world. Modern-day youth and orientations call for independence of thought and new ideas which result from challenging instilled conventional ways of thinking. Therefore, leaving Iraqi young women and men under the mercy of the politicized, corrupt, and biased ideologies resembles a massacre to the thought of those youth which IBB would not allow to happen. Moreover, in part of its vision to have Iraqi youth in touch with the world, and to enhance the vision of the world towards Iraq and its rich culture, and the people with their long-lasting civilization, IBB took it upon itself to raise the level of youth’s awareness through giving those practical and interactive workshops, helping the attendees challenge their old methods of thinking and seeing where the world is at in terms of critical thinking.

As such IBB aims to eliminate extremism, challenge misinformation, and introduce the Iraqi young generation to the world from a different positive perspective. All in all, this lies within the cornerstones of IBB’s principles to help the youth gain a different perspective of how the world is viewed through the scopes of respect, tolerance, and acceptance, and to point their fingers towards extremist views and biased or manipulating information and challenge them.

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This video is tackling some of our most precious values and freedoms, which are freedoms of expression and belief as it retells the story of The Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and his famous novel “Children of Gebelawi” that almost got him killed.

Since its first appearance as a series in an Egyptian newspaper in 1959, the novel stirred a massive controversy by many theocrats who considered it blasphemous and controversial. While Mahfouz emphasized that the novel is a symbolic fiction, which can be interpreted in various ways, some extremists, among them the Jihadi Sheikh Omar Abdelrahman, considered him an infidel and made an Islamic fatwa inciting his murder. As a result, in 1994 Mahfouz was attacked and stabbed in the neck by an extremist outside his Cairo home. Mahfouz survived the attack, yet he suffered from its consequences until his death. The Novel was banned in Egypt and was only published after he died in 2006.

The video addresses the dire need in Arab societies to defend freedom of expression and belief as basic human rights. No one should be killed because of what they believe or express.

Once published, the video created a massive debate among the viewers. The video generated 833 shares, 454 comments, 5.3K interactions, 201.4K views, and 19.8K one minutes views. And it reached 697.5K.

Some viewers criticized the novel and its author mostly based on the religious understanding of its symbols. Mariam Zoubi, for instance, said:

“This novel is one of the most creative ways to spread blasphemy. You know it is a professional way of insulting your beliefs. Notice, I don’t say that the author is an infidel, for it is not my business. I only talk about the novel as literature. Regardless of my opinion and rejection of it, the novel is a real masterpiece of infidel literature.”

One of the comments included even an implicit call for killing whoever allegedly insulting a Muslim sacred belief. Abu Ayman from Algeria wrote:

“May Allah bless the souls of Sheikh Kishk and Omar Abd Elrahman and punish whoever dares to insult our sacred figures and Shariah. When someone said a bad word about the prophet’s wives, Mohammad called for his head to be cut, imagine what should be done with someone who insults the divine.”

Still, others tried to claim that the novel was not the best of Mahfouz’s works, and he won the Nobel prize only because he insulted Islamic beliefs. A person who calls him/herself Ibro Khoine said:

“You only see creativity in works that are forbidden by Islam. If he were a true Muslim, he would have never received Nobel Prize. But when he attacked Islam, he got Nobel by Zionist support.”

On the other hand, however, many viewers praised the novel as a masterpiece of Mahfouz. Mariam Karam wrote:

“Naguib Mahfouz and other great figures are a real wealth that our society does not deserve. We have been going backward since the 1970s. Yet, Egypt used to be a beacon for the nations when we were respecting ourselves and others.”

Many viewers asserted their rejection of utilizing violence and terrorism to defend one’s doctrines. For example, Abdel Hamid wrote:

“A person who is intellectually bankrupt and has no argument to defend his beliefs is the one who relies on violence and weapon to attack whoever has intellect and argument. Now is the time of intellectual proofs and evidence, not of violence and weapons.”

Finally, the publishing of this video coincided with the death of Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian activist and feminist who spent her entire life promoting freethinking and women’s rights. Consequently, some viewers asserted that the same extremist mindset which drove a simple person’s attempt to kill Mahfouz is the one that is still trying to force its violence and dogmas on our societies. Other comments criticized Mahfouz and El Saadawi as doing the same insulting of Islam and its sacred beliefs. Still, others praised the video for supporting freedom of thought and belief. Alaa Ebeid wrote:

“Frist, bravo for the video, and the unique voiceover. Second, I felt as if this video were to implicitly remind us about Nawal El Saadawi, but as if it talked about her between the lines.”

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Updated: Jun 24

Author: Shermeen Yousif

The troubling, complicated scene in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries with civil unrest, is often attributed to external hands. Yet, it is also known for those who live there or had lived there, like myself, that the rhetoric is charged with preconceived notions of dehumanisation among the disconnected social groups, ethnicities, religions, and sects. There is often the “us versus them” mentality, fed by twisted religious dogma, bigotry, and socio-economic divisions. To understand how such an ecosystem emerged, it is important to note that some of the most problematic issues are ignorance and dehumanization of the “other”. The “other” is always vague and abstract. There is often a stigmatizing idea about the other religion, race, or ethnicity.

In psychology, the act of "othering" has unique meanings. One common interpretation of the term "othering" is the stigmatization of a group to protect one's own positive identity. Social differentiation characterizes the “us” and “them” concept, and is interpreted as racial, geographic, ideological, or ethnic differences. This always dangerously leads to bias and prejudice, and thrives on the denigration of the other group. In ethnocentrism, the term “othering” delineates the tendency of an in-group to regard itself as superior to the out-group The other then becomes a member of the out-group and is therefore vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination. “Othering” becomes the process of distinguishing between the inner-circle and outer-circle.

The perception of the “other” is often a constructed concept, determined by ideologies, cultural norms, experiences, and thus it differs from the “real” or “ground truth”. Therefore, the commentary on the “other” defines the rhetoric and becomes powerful in either charging hatred, or sometimes positively changing misconceptions. Acceptance and co-existence of diverse groups begin with the understanding of inevitable differences. It is self-evident that the rhetoric of divisiveness in my home country of Iraq feeds off ignorance and illiteracy, hich has worsened over the past few decades. The importance of literature and access to knowledge has diminished and is subordinate to survival needs and to navigating post-war Iraq. The consequences of long-term civil unrest have led to segregation of those diverse groups. Christians, Yezidi, Kurds, Shia, and Sunni live in their own worlds. The corrupted government is satisfied. “Divide and conquer” always works. In one instance, when election times approach, religiously based Shia politicians remind their folks of the importance of loyalty to their sect. The spirit of civic citizenship becomes subordinated to loyalty to the group. The pledge of allegiance occurs for the sect, which is the in-group. Unfortunately, the Iranian sectarian government model is one of the most influential and problematic issues in contemporary Iraq, which Iraqi Shia adhere to. Devotion to the sect becomes more important, compared to that to the country.

To further our understanding of such an issue, a referral to historical instances can be informative. For example, the Renaissance era was a transformational societal change towards favoring science, rational thinking, and logic. In the subsequent Age of Enlightenment (Age of Reason), medieval Europe emerged from the darkness with an intellectual and philosophical wave. This led to major societal and governmental reformations, in addition to positive aspects of liberty, progress, toleration, constitutional governments, and most important separation of religion and state. This kind of transformation is needed in Iraq, but the country has recently seen a sad step back into a darker age. This is fueled by multiple interrelated political agendas, towards controlling the masses and ensuring long-term existence. The masses are manipulated by fear of the “other”. The slogan “Don’t let the Sunni govern” has been a long-term phrase in the Shia-dominated government.

What is happening in Iraq is also happening in other parts of the world where hatred and bigotry have brewed which led to disconnectedness. We learned that history could repeat itself from recent global, political, and societal changes. Therefore it is important to deconstruct what can lead to such segregation. In order to have sympathy for others, it is necessary to learn, communicate, listen, and be open to dialogue. To establish such qualities, a transition from judgment-based to acceptance-based rhetoric becomes essential. “Re-humanisation”, as Elif Shafak describes, is a key concept to a positive change in such troubled environments. Before general judgments and misconceptions, we need to humanize the “other”.

Attempts of changing the existing rhetoric start with much-needed enlightenment in the Middle East, and in particular, Iraq. In order for people to develop acceptance and establish “re-humanization”, open-mindedness becomes necessary. This is often guided by a certain level of intellectual and analytical thinking, in addition to other ways of thinking. Communication between different groups should occur at multiple levels and in various forms, which is why access to literature on the “out-group” is important. Tolerance, acceptance and sympathy for the “other” are needed qualities. However, we all know that changing a popular mind-set is a huge shift that is only attainable when the public is ready. Until people read, listen, learn, respect and accept the out-group, the public scene can barely change.

Short Biography: Dr. Shermeen Yousif is an assistant professor in architecture, an immigrant from Iraq and an activist of women rights and Middle Eastern issues.

Elif Shafak. Source: https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q270739.

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