This man brings hope to Arab youth, one Wikipedia page at a time

Why We Wrote This

In the West, where everything is a click away, access to information is often taken for granted. But where language is a barrier, access is limited. A simple solution, translations, offers empowerment. 

Riley Robinson/Christian Science Monitor
Faisal Saeed al-Mutar is making more internet content available in Arabic in a bid to empower Arab youth with access to information.

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If access to information is a human right, then Arab youth may be at a disadvantage. Less than 1% of internet content is available in Arabic, rendering much of the web, including Wikipedia, unusable.

Faisal Saeed al-Mutar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist now living in New York, wanted to change that. In 2017, he founded the nonprofit Ideas Beyond Borders and has since hired 120 young people across the Middle East to translate Wikipedia pages into Arabic, starting with subjects they thought were most needed: female scientists, human rights, logical reasoning, and philosophy. 

In less than three years, they’ve translated 12 books and more than 8,000 Wikipedia pages, attracting 17 million views. The project is called Bayt al-Hikma 2.0, or House of Wisdom 2.0 – a reference to the Baghdad library and intellectual hub during the Islamic golden age. 

Mr. Mutar sees the project as a long-term investment in the region, and in Arab youth. 

Ahmed al-Rayyis, who organizes the translation team for IBB, agrees, and points to Bayt al-Hikma’s top-read Wikipedia page: gender equality. 

“We won’t see immediate results,” says Mr. Rayyis. “But if we invest in ideas, we can invest in a better future for everyone.”

Faisal Saeed al-Mutar grew up in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad. His neighborhood sat along the highway to the international airport. He was 12 when he watched American troops arrive in 2003. The U.S. military didn’t fix things, though, he says. Families moved out of the neighboring houses, and men with guns moved in.

But something good also happened: Iraq got the internet.

“It was just the best thing ever,” Mr. Mutar says. “It was kind of like a black market that existed for knowledge.”

Almost two decades later, Iraq’s internet has matured. Facebook, streaming services, and even “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu are popular. But so much is still inaccessible. Less than 1% of internet content is available in Arabic, rendering much of Wikipedia’s trove unusable.

In 2017 Mr. Mutar, then a refugee living in New York, wanted to change that. He founded the nonprofit Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB) and has since hired 120 young people across the Middle East to translate Wikipedia pages into Arabic, starting with subjects they thought were most needed: female scientists, human rights, logical reasoning, and philosophy. They’ve since expanded their work to translate books like “Enlightenment Now,” by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, and “Free Will,” by Sam Harris.

In less than three years, they’ve translated 12 books and more than 8,000 Wikipedia pages, attracting 17 million views. The project is called Bayt al-Hikma 2.0, or House of Wisdom 2.0 – a reference to the Baghdad library and intellectual hub during the Islamic golden age.

“Many younger Arabs have benefited profoundly from English-based information widely available on the internet or through traditionally published material. Some of these sources offer perspectives that develop critical thinking in areas that are taboo or suppressed not just in the Middle East but also in the West,” writes Natalie Khazaal in an email. Dr. Khazaal teaches Arab media at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and volunteers on IBB’s advisory board. “Unfortunately, most of that information isn’t available yet in Arabic and one needs to speak a foreign language to be able to access it online.

Mr. Mutar sees the project as a long-term investment in the region. “My goal is to prevent refugee crises from happening in the first place, rather than dealing with refugees,” he says. “I strongly believe that education and really changing the ecosystem of information is the way to go.”

COURTESY OF IDEAS BEYOND BORDERS
Ideas Beyond Borders has translated 12 books and it has distributed copies during protests in Baghdad.

Promoting independent thinking

As a teenager in Iraq, Mr. Mutar first encountered translation-sharing in an online forum about heavy metal music. People would post translations of works by Thomas Paine and George Orwell interspersed in chats about metal.

“That metal community became kind of the counterculture,” he says.

As the internet expanded, those exchanges moved to Facebook. “I Believe in Science,” a volunteer-run initiative that translates scientific research and articles to Arabic, began on Facebook in 2011 and migrated to its own website in 2013. Today, I Believe in Science has more than 300 volunteers and has translated over 10,000 articles. Its founder, Ahmed al-Rayyis, now organizes the translation team for IBB, and many of those volunteers have since been hired as Bayt al-Hikma translators.

Alber Saud, a Bayt al-Hikma translator and medical student at Al-Baath University in Homs, Syria, began translating material from medical books with a group of other students. They posted translations on Facebook to counteract phony health advice they saw online.

“I would search for medical information online and couldn’t find it in Arabic,” he says.

Mr. Rayyis says the most commonly searched articles on I Believe in Science are about women’s health and pregnancy. Bayt al-Hikma’s top-read Wikipedia page is gender equality. The second most-read page? Margaret Thatcher.

“Our goal is to make Arab youth think for themselves. We don’t want them to be sheep,” Mr. Rayyis says.

Dr. Khazaal says the learning flows both to the East and West, as there’s a need for audiences to recognize overlooked Arab thinkers. “[M]any progressive ideas, books, thinkers from the Arab world – throughout the centuries – remain like gems hidden from the West,” she writes. “There is a dire need in the West and beyond to ‘rediscover’ those sides of the Arab world that are genius, diverse, and innovative. These are the kinds of areas that IBB strives to cover.”

They’re also creating a space where people can seek answers to questions too taboo to ask publicly.

IBB also offers translators another form of anonymity online: They can submit their translated material to be posted from the United States, rather than from their home countries where they could be tracked. Also, translators are paid for work they were previously doing for free, and they can earn translation certifications endorsed by organizational partners.

Mr. Mutar says he makes a point of hiring people from some of the most conflict-torn countries of the region, usually without formal translation training, because he wants to offer jobs and professional development where 20-somethings need them most.

Raghad al-Katlabe, a medical student at the University of Damascus in Syria, is one of those 20-somethings. She started translating for Bayt al-Hikma about nine months ago, and has since translated more than 200 articles. The work has allowed her to buy a laptop and pay for German-language courses. She can also afford to move out of university dorms into a home of her own – a first since her family’s home in Damascus was destroyed by war. 

“Plus I met a number of great people who are facing similar life conditions,” she writes in an email. “It felt great to know I’m not alone.”

Investing in ideas

As a teenager, Mr. Mutar became more interested in online discourse and the varied viewpoints it offered. In high school, he started a blog, where he says he mostly posted about anti-extremism. He also passed out Arabic copies of the Bill of Rights at school.

Members of Al Qaeda threatened Mr. Mutar, saying he should shut down his blog. His parents had reason to worry: Their family is Shiite and was living in a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by radical Sunnis. He and his brothers used fake IDs with Sunni-sounding names to get through Al Qaeda-controlled checkpoints in their neighborhood. In 2007 his brother disappeared at a checkpoint and was presumed to have been killed. Mr. Mutar shut down his blog.

He left Iraq and moved to Lebanon in 2009, then enrolled in college in Malaysia, where he studied computer science. He applied for United Nations refugee status there and was accepted to the U.S. in 2013. Mr. Mutar worked for an international nonprofit before he planned IBB and began pitching to donors for startup funds.

Since its founding in 2017, IBB has also started translating texts into Kurdish and Farsi. Last fall it partnered with the University of Mosul, where 10 students each semester will earn translation certification while working with Bayt al-Hikma.

In November, three people from IBB handed out 500 abridged, Arabic-language copies of “Enlightenment Now” to protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where anti-government demonstrations have rocked the country since October.

“We won’t see immediate results,” says Mr. Rayyis. “But if we invest in ideas, we can invest in a better future for everyone.”

[Editor's Note: This story has been updated to specify which family member was targeted by Al Qaeda and which members were issued fake IDs.]

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