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Faisal Saeed Al Mutar on the Campbell Conversations

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Faisal Saeed Al Mutar
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. He's an immigrant to the United States from Iraq. He is the founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting critical thinking, science and civil rights in the Middle East region. He's with me today in large part to discuss something I've encountered in past interviews with some guests on this program, that it's often immigrants to the United States who have the deepest understanding and appreciation of the freedoms that exist here. I've seen this, for example, in my conversations with Lost Boys from Sudan, like the Olympic runner Lopez Lomong and here in Syracuse, Chol Majok. I wanted to explore that more deeply with him. Faisal, welcome to the program.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Thank you so much for having me.

GR: We really appreciate you making the time to be here. So, I'm sure we could spend the entire half hour on this one thing. But just to start, briefly, if you could, tell our listeners about your experience escaping kidnaping and execution in Iraq 20 years ago.

FSAM: Well, my name as mentioned is Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, I was born in Babylon. So that's the same Babel that is mentioned in the Bible. But I grew up in Baghdad, the capital city. I come from an academic family, my dad is a surgeon, my mom is a lawyer, my dad studied in the United Kingdom. (The) first section, I would say in my life was under the regime of Saddam Hussein. So that would be the time I was born. I was born right after the first Gulf War. And then for 12 years it was under the regime of Saddam Hussein. And following that was the U.S. intervention or the kind of the second Gulf War or sometimes called the Iraq War. And the neighborhood that I used to grow up in was mostly supporters of the former regime. So when the regime was disposed, many of them rented their houses or sold their houses to militias mostly known as al-Qaeda and several other kind of militias in the neighborhood. And so that will be kind of the second section of my life. And so with that, so the neighborhood really changed from kind of a residential neighborhood with a lot of kids playing in the street, into checkpoints by terrorist groups and a civil war of people killing each other based on their identity, their religious identity, their sects, their ethnicity in some cases. And my crazy self at the time, when I was in high school, I decided to become outspoken against some of these extremist voices that led me to end up in a couple of death lists. And the local affiliates of al-Qaida in Iraq that eventually targeted me, that I had to escape the country in 2009 and I get accepted to the United States and 2013. So that's like the super short summary, but I can definitely go in detail if you like.

GR: Okay, well, if something comes up later and you want to return to it, but we'll leave it there for now. So, let me shift then, you're in the United States, and then you have time to be here and reflect on things and experience life here. What is it that you appreciate most about this country? That may seem like a dumb question, but what do you appreciate most about living in this country?

FSAM: I mean, in simple terms is expressing yourselves without getting killed. That would be I would say number one. So for me, the subject of freedom, expression in all forms, whether it's in writing or any creative forms, is something that I deeply appreciate. The fact that the governments or even the lack of existence of militias, even though in some cases in some cities in America, I'm seeing that there are some groups that that try to shut voices down. But in generally speaking, general terms, America is a very great place to be when it comes to freedom of expression. Something I also appreciate a lot is freedom of religion. The fact, I mean, I live in New York City, so the fact that all of the religions or lack of religions can (be) able to coexist peacefully without each one of them going into their kind of what I call the primary identity and going into sectarian violence. And the third one is really the opportunities. I mean, America has this ability in which you can be, for the most part, whatever you want and follow your potential to the maximum and find people who can support you. And that's something I saw in real time, whether it's people who hosted me when I moved to America in 2013. I lived with an American host family for a year. And all those who kind of support my work and provide me with jobs. And so I would say I like the kind of safety of ability to express yourself, freedom of religion and really opportunities. And I would say like, I've been living the three of these things to the maximum as I can in the past ten years that I'd been living here.

GR: And you came from a well-educated family, it sounds like. So you were probably somewhat informed about the United States and the West. Is there anything about living here, though, so far that that surprised you that you weren't expecting that you've experienced?

FSAM: I would say, I mean, the most kind of contradictory but also shocking manner is that I do think that over living here of past ten years, and I say that I do have a very positive experience in this country, but also a very informed experience. I mean, I've been to 40 states so far, I've spoken in many campuses and many venues, general venues, and it can be all the way from Milwaukee to San Diego to even the University of Rochester in upstate New York. So I do think that I have like some idea of about America. And I think I think the most shocking piece is that the majority of people, especially in this age of polarization, many of these things that I mentioned, is that they either take for granted or don't appreciate. So with the polarization, I mean, one of the things that remains, I would say very much scares me about America is the polarization piece and the fact that me living in a civil war, I can understand the consequences of what happens if people put themselves into political or religious identity. And that's something that's kind of what I see people engaging in, extremist language or polarizing language. My first instinct is actually fear because I've seen what it leads to. And when people start to dehumanize others for being Democrats or Republicans or whatever. And I think that kind of things, I find it very disappointing. Even though America is a hub and a melting pot for a lot of cultures, there seems to be very little knowledge of things that are happening outside the United States and the consequences of really of these ideas and of further polarization are really that the value is taken for granted to the way that you don't know if you're losing them.

GR: That's a very interesting connection to make between your experience and then political polarization here. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, the founder of Ideas Beyond Borders. So now I want to start getting into really kind of the primary reason why I wanted you to come on the program and you already started speaking about it there just a second ago. But first of all, tell me about this experience that you had a couple of years ago at Berkeley that really kind of shocked you in ways that you've been talking about.

FSAM: Yeah, and sad to say is that the Berkeley experience is one out of many. In fact, one of the most extreme experiences I've had was at the University of Rochester. And in Rochester, we had a, I would say kind of not even a debate, but it was a kind of a kind of a panel conversation between an imam and one of the authors at the Atlantic, Graeme Wood, who wrote a very fascinating piece about ISIS called, “What ISIS Really Wants”. And then there was me and a moderator. First of all, many of the students who were trying to cancel the event, so they were hysterically emailing pretty much everybody, including the administration, to cancel. And then they failed to do that as the kind of the student group said, like, well, there's nothing wrong. I mean, nobody here is really extreme or has any extreme views. Then they were shouting at us. In fact, one of the students was saying that they would spit on the face of the speakers for daring to speak in the university. And we were faced with like a very extremely hostile student base. So there were a lot of people kind of making noises and, and things like that. So that's at Rochester. And at Harvard, there was this experience where we were really talking about free speech around the world, and the university, I think one of the student union at the University of Harvard emailed the student group asking them to remove the word free speech from the title of the event, because they considered that the word of free speech to be like a right wing word, and therefore it might lead a lot of students to be uncomfortable being on campus. Again, you know, I was heavily connected to some of those students actually invited us to speak. The third one was University of Oklahoma. I was disinvited from University of Oklahoma because some of the students, my talk was about my experience and al-Qaeda and ISIS and some of the students without even knowing what I'm going to talk about, said that this conversation should not be had. And then after I kind of created some pushback and I tweeted about it, things like that. They said the only way that they can allow me to speak was that I have to send a speech in advance and be approved by the students that were concerned about my speech. And then after that, I need to have a debate with a person that the students who were kind of uncomfortable about my talk would like me to debate. So that was the condition. And at UC Berkeley, it was kind of a similar experience. It was just a pure consolation and it was, we received and in some cases, like the students would get invited and things like that, they get put under so much pressure, they get like, well, 50 - 60 emails and like, oh, we have decided that this makes us uncomfortable when this person gets to campus and that they need to be disinvited. So, that was kind of the Berkeley experience. University of Portland was also there were a lot of students who were shouting at us. That was an event with me and had, with a philosopher actually, his name is Peter Boghossian. And they were like, last year they're kind of shouting at us. And then there are people who came and later to the event, we never came to the event who are just attacking us and shouting. So yeah, it’s unfortunately, it's not like something that I would say was like a one anecdotal experience, but it's more like something that I've experienced. As I mentioned, the states that I've mentioned and the places these are from the East Coast to the West Coast, to the Midwest, pretty much everywhere. So it seems like a very common trend and across many of these venues.

GR: And let me make sure that I'm clear about this. So, I read about the Berkeley experience, and so I want to make sure that I got my understanding correct. The pushback that you are getting is coming from the left, first of all, is that right? And second of all, am I correct also in understanding from the Berkeley experience, what in particular bothered you was the students that were upset with your speaking there, were also comparing the United States to Iraq in terms of suppression and repression. Do I have both of those things right?

FSAM: Yes, correct. So, say that the UC Berkeley experience, which eventually, so after a couple of consolations, I came, ended up in a speech and I was talking about kind of the first experience of suicide attack and then the suicide bomber attack. And then one of the students was like, oh, we have the same thing here. And I was like, where? Whether it's the left or the right I mean, I would say it's more a specific demographics. I mean, the people that I'm talking about tend to be more the younger students of college campuses. I don’t like to generalize on kind of, I think many, at least that's my understanding is those who are more on the older side understand the importance of freedom of expression, because the freedom of expression also allows for Black Lives Matter, also allows for pretty much everything. So those who are, I guess more on the on the older side, they kind of understand what happens because things kind of flip at any second, right, is that you might have a right wing government that would suppress left wing speech and left wing government that suppress right wing speech. So those who kind of understand the slippery slope of what could happen if you allow censorship I think get it, but there are some like from my experience, at least in New York, there are some groups like (unintelligible) America and stuff who tend to be more on the left, tend to also support freedom of expression. So I would say it's more the, I guess, college Gen-Z’s in particular. That's how I would say about I've had the most negative experience, the less with those who are more older on the older side.

GR: I see. You're listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. He's an immigrant from Iraq and the founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting critical thinking, science and civil rights in the Middle East region. I wanted to ask you whether you have any evidence or thoughts about whether the kinds of things that you were talking about that you've encountered at these academic institutions exist beyond those environments and more generally among the American public? I think you've got some data that suggests that this might be something that might be more general than even that.

FSAM: Yeah. So I mean, there are organizations that I wouldn’t say affiliated with, but kind of in the same circles as I run into like an organization called Fire, which is a foundation for individual rights and expression. And they have kind of first the university rankings. So they have, they rank universities all across with an acceptance of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And there are some universities on the top as kind of the worst, unfortunately. And there are some universities who are like much more different, like, for example, the University of Chicago where the dean of the university has expressed that he is all for different points of view in faculty or in student unions, et cetera. And the expansion of Fire is actually them touching on the general public. So the way in the general public is I witnessed it, because part of what my organization does is the translation of books and making knowledge available in the Middle East, is that some of the publishers kind of cancel some of the authors. So like after a while, they receive complaints about a specific author of them leaning one way or another. So there's definitely, so that's I would say more in the private sector than it is in the academic institution because most of the publishing houses are private, in which they remove a book from A. Sultan Publishing. I mean, there are some cases in states in which their school board, et cetera, removes a book from a library that's mostly happening in southern states, in Florida or in Texas. So I would say it is definitely a rampant issue. I mean, I'm sure that many of your listeners have been in so many cases in which they have to self-censor in one way or another, for them to avoid losing their job. And many people contact me of the fact is that one of the known people is somebody called Winston Marshall who is a musician and tweeted about the fact that he supported or read a book by an author called Andy Ngo. Which is somewhat controversial author and controversial book which was about Antifa and then after a while he started getting bombarded by messages until he resigned from the band for the fact that he read or tweeted about a certain book.

GR: I see.

FSAM: So yes, it's definitely a general public issue but I think I have to be clear that the censorship in the US is definitely different than the censorship I grew up with, which is the one that is more violent. Which is why one of the projects that we started is like, what I try to explain is that what we face, like the most extreme cases, whether it's in Iraq or Afghanistan, all of these places, is kind of the end of the tip of the iceberg. That's what happens when slowly things, starts with kind of self-censorship, then it starts with the government starts creating laws, mostly they are called hate speech laws, which are very common in Europe, by the way, so they are common in the West. And then after that, you reach, and that's how even censorship, for example, in Turkey started. Is that, it started with something called social cohesion. And they start kind of kicking out journalists from work, academics, censored, et cetera. And then eventually they created a national security law that pretty much doesn't allow any journalist to speak anything controversial. So most of the censorship is really, starts with something very, very basic and mostly being benign, of like trying to protect minorities, trying to get everybody to work together. And then slowly but surely, because many of these laws and regulations are very vague, then they try to kind of be applied to anybody who says anything remotely, be viewed by some people as controversial. So that's really, I would say, my message to most of the audiences here in the US is that be careful what you wish for, and don't be too optimistic that these laws or any form of regulations on speech will actually lead exactly to the consequences that you intend them to do. There are many cases, unintended consequences, and those who get harmed the most are those who are the underprivileged. I mean, if an author who is known and famous gets banned, they can still get another job, they can still figure out a way. But if somebody is a young comedian or a young author and they get banned, their livelihood is pretty much destroyed. And these are the people who eventually get hurt, not those who are kind of the elite who in many cases can figure out a way to survive. But it's mostly those who are just a young graduate of journalism or young comedian and then they say the wrong thing and make the wrong joke and then their livelihoods and pretty much their lives are destroyed. So this is the ones that I try to speak on, not speak on their behalf, but try to try to make people aware of the consequences of what would happen to (them).

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. So tell me about this organization, Ideas Beyond Borders. Did it get started out of these experiences and very briefly, tell us what your organization does and what it's been doing.

FSAM: So it started with my experiences in Iraq. I mean, I grew up where the internet was censored most of the time, in fact, getting a satellite television or listening to the wrong radio may get you in jail or death. So I started the organization mostly to make knowledge that is censored or not available in many of these authoritarian regimes available through the internet and through many of the modern encryption and tools that exist. And that comes from my experience, professional experience, is that when I moved to the United States, I was recruited to work on a project that was funded by Google Ideas, which was about developing tools to help people in closed societies be able to circumvent the internet. So what we really do is that we make inaccessible information accessible to people in the Middle East. That would be information about human rights, democracy, critical thinking, most of the things that authoritarian regimes don't want people to have access to. And we do have a very big focus on critical thinking because that's one of the things that, where authoritarian regimes make sure that people don't have access to. So in that way, they were able to maintain their control. And so that would be translating books about logical fallacies, translating book about even some of the founding documents of America, whether it's we just recently translated elements of the US Constitution into Pashto, which is one of the languages mostly spoken in Afghanistan, and trying to like in detail explain what is the First Amendment, what is the Second Amendment, why is freedom of assembly important? And that's I think that has been much missing in kind of the American foreign policy discussion is that they thought that they can bomb countries into democracy. And the reality is that you have to make these ideals accessible before people start accepting them. And these are also one of the lessons I have learned living in Iraq, living under the American intervention. Is that they thought they can just like bomb a country, remove whatever who was in power, and then suddenly people almost in many cases, especially in areas in the south, are illiterate or don't really have access to information, was suddenly impressed and like start believing in Thomas Jefferson, I mean, it doesn't work that way. So the idea is how to make it digestible, accessible ,is really I would say that kind of the central piece of what we do and as well as making the tools for people as well. So for example, in Afghanistan where we expanded, we support a group of teachers, mostly female teachers, who run underground schools. And NPR did a media coverage about this specific schools that we that we cover in which group of teachers, who most of them went to college during the American intervention, and decided to continue with education for girls. And they were like, okay, we need Internet access, so we helped them with that. They needed some support for stationery, stuff like that for the students, we supported them with that. So mainly it's like we are a kind of information organization focused on making knowledge accessible and giving them the tools. And as we are expanding or expanding to different regions where we matter, where we actually can make an impact and also supporting the voices and the people there for them to take leadership. I mean, my goal of my organization is actually ceasing to exist. I don't want to do this job forever. Actually accomplish the mission and let the people there eventually lead the way for them to change their own countries.

GR: We've got about a two or three minutes left and I wanted to ask you this question at the end and it's a huge question, but, I'm sorry, we've just got a limited amount of time to get into it, but I wanted to return to that Berkeley experience in a way and ask you this. Going back to this country, the United States, what do you think is most needed to help instill in native born Americans an appreciation of these ideals of free speech and free exchange that are so foundational to the aspirations of the country? What do we need to do to reach that generation where you've identified this problem?

FSAM: But as I say, I mean, I think the answer could also be critical thinking. Because if people are able to think logically, they would be able to think of the consequences of authoritarianism and the consequences of what would happen if you allow censorship or authoritarianism to go through. And I think the second thing would be exposure to what happens elsewhere. It's unfortunate that in many cases people do not have the exposure to what's happening overseas for them to understand the consequences of authoritarianism. So I think the two things would be first, critical thinking and the second one would be international knowledge. And maybe the third one would be civics, is actually make sure that civics education and getting the all of the ideals that made this country great to be instilled from that generation and be accessible and enjoyable, not just things people have to memorize in order for them to pass an exam, but actually start really understanding and appreciating them and know what they take for granted.

GR: And we've just got about a minute left. But the last question I'll squeeze in is do you have a sense you think of where this country is headed in regards to this concern that we've been discussing? Or do you think we're going to get worse? We're going to get better? What's your sense of it?

FSAM: I think Thomas Jefferson said I'm not a believer in luck, the harder I work, the more things happen. So I think eventually, I would say I'm neutral. I think that it's really up to the people. There are signs of optimism I've noticed as I speak across the country, travel across the country. I see that a lot of people really are concerned and they want to do something about it. And I can see organizations, a lot of them popping up every week, whether it's local or national. And also there are signs of pessimism. So I think I would say I'm neutral. I think that it's really up to us. I mean, I'm an American citizen as well, I see this country as also part of my experience and I'm dedicating my life to it. So I think it's up to us to eventually to be in charge of our destiny.

GR: Well, I wish you good luck in this work, it's an important work. That was Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. And again, his organization is called Ideas Beyond Borders. Faisal, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. And it's been both inspirational and reaffirming for me, so thank you for that.

FSAM: Thank you so much for having me.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.