Amidst the dangers of conflict, meet the new generation of Iraqis fighting for knowledge
Once a regional leader in scientific education and research, Iraq is now having to rekindle its capabilities in science. Matt Smith finds a group of young entrepreneurs helping to drive Iraq scientific renaissance.
It was in a Baghdad café in 2011 that a group of young Iraqi radicals met in person for the first time to discuss how to put their plan into action. United by beliefs that were often abhorrent to traditional Iraqi society, the 15 friends nevertheless agreed to pool their talents and spread their doctrine among the country’s enlightened minority.
Their work would be laborious, dangerous and without any financial reward, but their achievements in the following six years would be remarkable as together they built a following of over 270,000 people seeking what they sought: scientific knowledge and understanding.
Omar Meriwani, 28, was present that stifling summer’s night in Baghdad in 2011 as he and his new-found friends launched Real Sciences, a free online database of scientific articles. There are now about 1,800 on the group’s website – around 400 features are original writings by members and the remainder are popular texts that members have translated from English and French.
“We’re called Real Sciences because we’re against pseudo-science,” said Meriwani, who works full-time as a software engineer. Among the subjects the group covers are physics, psychology, biology, medicine, psychiatry and linguistics.
Meriwani manages Real Sciences’ Facebook page and website and is also an administrator of the portal of sister organisation, the Iraqi Translation Project (ITP). ITP was founded in 2013 and is similar in inspiration, but covers a broader spectrum of subjects beyond science and solely translates texts from other languages rather than producing original work of its own. It has translated over 5,000 articles into Arabic.
“Real Sciences started with just translating articles, but then we started to tackle subjects that are unique to our societies like believing in the evil eye, in magic, or scholars pretending to cure diseases just by touching or by reading Quran,” said Meriwani.
ON A MISSION TO COUNTER IGNORANCE
The work of the two groups is helping counter a growing reliance on sorcery and magic among Iraqis. Hundreds of witchcraft practitioners sell potions and amulets to solve health, financial or relationship problems, also issuing curses against enemies, according to a 2015 report in Al Araby Al-Jadeed. There are also myriad Arabic language TV channels championing similar nonsense.
Superstition is flourishing as Iraq’s educational infrastructure crumbles from nearly 30 years of war, sanctions, occupation and internal strife.
Once regarded as having perhaps the best education system in the Middle East, 84% of the country’s educational institutions were looted, burned or destroyed by 2005, Al Jazeera reported citing United Nations estimates. A 2010 UNESCO report found that one in five Iraqis were illiterate, while in rural areas less than half of women could read. Just 27.5% of Iraqis complete secondary schooling, which ends at 14 years old.
“People tend to believe in superstitions instead of scientific theories,” said Gilgamesh Nabeel, a 28-year-old ITP volunteer. “If we talk about creationism and evolution people tend to refuse all the evidence that supports evolution and believe in creationism without providing any material evidence.”
Baghdad-born Nabeel joined the group in 2014 after members read his online articles about Mesopotamian archaeology. Originally, the project was called 'I Am Iraqi, I Read', a clever play on Descartes’s concept of 'Je pense, donc je suis' [I Think Therefore I Am] and the old Arabic saying 'Egypt writes, Lebanon prints, and Iraq reads'.
It began as a campaign to promote reading among Iraqis, before evolving into the ITP.
“We think the Arabic content online is insufficient,” said Nabeel. “There are many topics that are usually not covered, even in educational curricula of schools and universities. We want to bring other points of view and other perspectives to this part of the world, like evolution, sexuality and other things that are not that discussed openly and freely.”
Now with 133,000 Facebook followers and about 80 volunteers, ITP has also translated around 50 documentaries and produces a free e-magazine. The project is a vocation for many of its members, some of whom dedicate 3-4 hours a day to it, translating articles and maintaining its social media accounts and website. It also depends on the generosity of its members to pay for website hosting.
OPENING MINDS TO NEW IDEAS
Despite an often hostile reaction, the two science groups believe their work is helping to open readers’ minds up to new ideas, however uncomfortably these relate to long-held beliefs.
“One of our members was arguing with me against secularism on my own page Mesopotamia,” said Nabeel, a medical graduate who now works as a journalist and translator in Istanbul. “He was always against my posts and against my ideas. Then he changed his mind, joined our group and started spreading topics on secularism. He is now fighting against ISIS with the army.”
Real Sciences’ more than 40 members also include Egyptians, Syrians and Moroccans. About half write original articles and half translate, with some doing both. Meriwani is among the most prolific members, having written around 160 articles. He is also chief editor supervising proof reading and fact-checking, and dedicates 1-2 hours daily to the group.
It has nearly 150,000 followers on Facebook, with the social network the most important means to distribute articles. The group also publishes an e-magazine and newsletter and posts on Twitter.
“Google search is also one of the most important channels – in Arabic, many articles are the first result in Google search,” said Meriwani.
Some writers use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, although most do publish their real names.
“We get real threats from people when we write these articles. People are calling us atheists. People threaten us directly or indirectly,” said Meriwani, who nevertheless was sanguine about the dangers of his group’s work despite the systematic killing of Iraqi academics – around 300 were murdered from 2003-2007, USA Today reported.
“The secular people writing these articles aren’t a real threat to the Islamic powers in the Middle East. They're having their own conflicts – we’re not the most dangerous thing for them to worry about.”
With shared members and mutual admiration for each other’s work, Real Sciences and the Iraqi Translation Project hope to expand their activities despite what they say is hostility from the Iraqi educational establishment.
“It was like a dream when I found people with similar interests,” added Meriwani who has written about 20 non-scientific articles for ITP. “We are very close to each other. We are friends. We meet when we are in Baghdad.”