Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder of Ideas Beyond Borders and the Global Secular Humanist Movement speaks to Conatus News about secularism in the Middle East.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are some initiatives you’re hoping to lay out for 2018 with the Global Secular Humanist Movement?
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Global Secular Humanist Movement has been undergoing multiple evolutions. During the Arab Spring in the middle of 2009 and then 2010, I saw potential for a movement that would unite secularists globally. I wanted to share the message of activists within the Arab world, a message I felt deserved a larger audience, to the world.
Initially, I thought I was the only one who thought that way. Then the page grew to 350,000 people. Often, when there is a significant terrorist attack, we hear the question, “Who are the secularists in the region?”
The goal for 2018 is to highlight the incredibly important work of people who are on the frontline fighting extremism in the region. Also, we want to expand beyond Islamic extremism.
We want to speak out against the far Right and the extremists on the Left. We want it to be more of a hub for many of these writers, journalists, and activists the world over – for them to be able to express themselves.
For the Arab world, we have the program called ASAP – Arab Secular Assistance Project –which is part of Ideas Beyond Borders but frequently shared on GSHM Channels. The goal is to introduce progressive Arab voices to the world by translating their material into English and other languages as well.
The goal is to promote the freedom fighters, especially secular freedom fighter in a way that would help the general public as well as policymakers.
Jacobsen: Who have been some of the more prominent writers to come out of that outlet?
Mutar: Over the past three years, I have worked more as an agent to activists within the Arab world. The goal was not to publish people inside the Global Secular Humanist Platforms but, rather, to publish them on multiple news platforms like The Daily Beast and CNN.
Then we share their articles on the Global Secular Humanist Movements. Of the more prominent cases we have worked on have been those of the Bengali bloggers. They have endured horrendous atrocities in the region, and many of them lost their lives, but we have been publishing their work.
We have been able to publish them on English-language outlets, such as the aforementioned. An organisation I worked for was the hub in spreading these voices as well as figures like Raif Badawi, Secular Iranians, Saudi and women’s rights activists like Manal Sharif, and people like Waleed Al-Husseini from Palestine. He was in prison for ten years for his non-belief.
It became a platform for activists to get to know each other as well. Many friendships are the product of that page! We share articles and spark conversations and use videos, all to highlight the work of these brave activists.
Jacobsen: With Ideas Beyond Borders, what are some initiatives you hope will bring about change in 2018?
Mutar: Our major initiative now is to translate books related to science, humanism, critical thinking, Enlightenment values, and so on, from English to Arabic. What we are doing is getting the legal licenses from these authors, people like Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, and many others to get their books translated into Arabic.
The goal is to do the actual translation, and over the time we will be building partnerships across the Arab speaking world with many social media pages. Now, we are building ones with TV and radio stations, where we promote and make small videos that discuss some of these writings.
We call this the House of Wisdom. In the 13th century in Baghdad, there was a Caliph called the Mamun. They used to translate books from other languages – mostly Latin and Greek – into Arabic.
Our program is called House of Wisdom or Bayt al-Hikma 2.0. We are doing the digital version of what the Caliph did the 13th century. We are doing it digitally because it can more easily be accessible.
We are aiming to distribute these books for free. Getting licenses and such requires money, but we are hoping to make this information as accessible as possible to mainly young Arab-speaking audiences.
Many initiatives originating in the Arab world have aimed to do this. The only difference or the major difference is that I am aiming to do it in a more legal or sustainable way. For example, The God Delusion has been downloaded 15 million times across the Arab world.
The issue is that some of these publishing companies have a problem with that because this is copyrighted material. We are trying to do it legally and sustainably, as opposed to relying on various translators in their basements.
I am inspired by these translators who are living under dangerous circumstances in Baghdad or Syria and disseminating that knowledge. For us, Ideas Beyond Borders is where the idea came from; it is a bridge between the Arab speaking and the English speaking world. This project has never been realised in the West, which is kind of saddening.
It gives Ideas Beyond Borders a niche market. That will be the primary program. But we do have other programs that will be implemented this year. One of them is the “positive counter-extremism messaging.”
The goal is that when there is a terrorist attack like Orlando or something like that, the news media focuses on how bad the state of the world is. What I think is missing, what I think terrorists want to achieve, is to make things hopeless for people to achieve anything. Positive counter-extremism messaging, where we can highlight the positive things happening and the projects and ways people can donate to initiatives that are working to build that counter-narrative.
The positive counter-message would be “look at this LGBT conference happening in Tunisia, here is how to get involved with them.” When the terrorists try to say “give up and it is all meaningless,” we can counter with “no, there is life and reason to hope.”
One message will be a Global Secular Humanist Movement and Ideas Beyond Borders merger, where we highlight progressive Arab voices, translate their books, and build a database. If a journalist or writer like yourself wants to interview people in Syria with a secular and liberal perspective, we will be your go-to people.
We can tell you that we have forged relationships with people. Here is a translation of their work so you can have a backstory of what they do. We can introduce these folks into the world. Also, we are trying to build an art program that matches that as well.
One of the things conservative and ultra-conservative versions of Islam are trying to achieve is to destroy art and music and literature and philosophy. As you know, the Middle East and even South Asia and these other countries have a rich history when it comes to art and music.
We are trying to digitise that art, which itself builds a counter-narrative to the Far Right who are trying to say, “Those people from there are savages without culture and art.”
Also, it is a form of a counter-narrative to Islamists who say the culture is a homogenous Islamic one. We are working with an amazing professor. Her name is Sadif Jaffer. We are looking to build that once we get that proposal into a program with steps, as well as acquire the funding for it.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Faisal.
Mutar: Sure, thank you!