Toward a New Middle East

22nd July 2020

The Middle East is facing an information problem. There are approximately 420 million Arabic speakers in the world, and yet some estimates suggest that only 0.7% to 0.9% of the internet exists in Arabic. According to the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report (2003), the number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,200 years is roughly equivalent to the number translated into Spanish in a single year (the exact numbers are sometimes disputed, but the overall picture remains unchanged). Many countries in the region censor material for political, religious, or other ideological reasons. Conspiracy theories abound, ranging from the old and hackneyed (for example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) to more contemporary confabulations (such as the notion that the United States created the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic). The censorial nature of many regimes in this part of the world, combined with the limited availability of high-quality informational resources, stifles progress and can make it difficult for curious people to access important information.

Part of the Solution: Ideas Beyond Borders

Enter Ideas Beyond Borders, an NGO whose mission centers on fighting misinformation and preventing extremism and whose founder and president began as a refugee from war-torn Iraq. Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB) employs 120 translators who, working from a variety of countries in the Middle East, translate books and articles into Arabic, Kurdish, and Farsi. The organization tackles a broad range of topics, many of which fall into one of four key areas: (1) science, (2) logic, reason, and critical thinking, (3) civil rights, women’s rights, secular humanism, and pluralism, and increasingly, (4) debunking myths and conspiracies related to COVID-19. Everything IBB produces – articles, books, and videos – is freely available to the public.

At the outset, a disclaimer: I’m an advisor to Ideas Beyond Borders, and I endorse its mission of spreading science, reason, and humanism in the Middle East – so I’m probably not an impartial judge. I wrote this essay to raise awareness about IBB’s work precisely because I hope it becomes more widely known.

Ideas Beyond Borders has only been around since 2017, but it is already a force to be reckoned with. As of this writing, it has translated 14 books and 17,000 Wikipedia articles into Arabic, causing Arabic to rise in the ranks of Wikipedia languages from #18 to #15 and to pass the encyclopedia’s 1 million article milestone. Here are some of the fruits of IBB’s work and why they matter.

Science

Arabic Wikipedia now has hundreds of new entries on subjects like psychology, physics, and genetics, and over 400 new articles on evolution alone. Sample Wikipedia articles translated by IBB include the Scientific Method, The Cognitive Revolution, The Demon-Haunted World, How the Mind Works, Ethology, the Hardy-Weinberg Principle, The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, the Biology of Bipolar Disorder, the Biological Basis of Personality, Cognitive Science of Religion, Microevolution, and Macroevolution.

Reason, logic, and critical thinking

Logical fallacies and cognitive biases pervade our reasoning and impoverish our lives. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that our reasoning evolved to help us secure allies and bolster our reputations, not to be disinterested seekers of truth. Becoming more aware of these fallacies helps us sharpen our thinking. To this end, IBB’s translators have been working to provide curious people with easy access, in Arabic, to key findings of psychology and foundational aspects of logic. 

Sample Arabic Wikipedia entries under this umbrella of reason and critical thinking include Logical Fallacy, Circular Reasoning, Tu Quoque, Straw Man, No True Scotsman, Appeal to Tradition, False Dichotomy, James Randi, the Sokal Hoax, Cognitive Bias, and the Bias Blind Spot.  

Civil rights, minority rights, & secular humanism

Ultimately, IBB’s goal is a Middle East founded on Enlightenment values, civil rights, minority rights, pluralism, and secular humanism. Sadly, my part of the world is lagging behind on these metrics of civilizational progress, but the potential is clear: the Middle East was among the most tolerant regions of the world in times past, retains pockets of pluralism and egalitarianism to this day, and includes in its fold many who are ardently working toward a different future. 

To make such a future possible, people must have free access to the ideas of great thinkers and activists who advocated for the primacy of reason and evidence, egalitarian ideals, and civil rights. To this end, IBB has translated articles such as Gender Equality, Civil Rights, Minority Rights, Suffragette, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Frederick Douglass (you know – he who has famously “done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more), Authoritarianism, Classical Liberalism, Secularism, The Enlightenment, Humanism, Presumption of Innocence, and Religions of the Ancient Near East as well as books such as Enlightenment Now by Steve Pinker, Islam and the Future of Tolerance by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, and Radical by Maajid Nawaz. 

These materials – including the books – are freely available to the public. They are badly needed in a part of the world that has deeply sexist laws and still imprisons, executes, and sometimes tortures people for being gay – witness the tragic story of Sarah Hegazy.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19

Humans have a habit of spinning colorful conspiracy theories about everything under the sun. In keeping with that rich tradition, COVID-19 conspiracy theories range from “Plandemic” falsehoods to anti-Semitic tropes to luddite 5G fixations to the idea that the pandemic was intentionally caused by the United States government

In an attempt to improve the informational landscape surrounding COVID-19 in Arabic, Ideas Beyond Borders has advanced two main messages: first, you can’t neatly assign the blame for COVID-19 to the intentional actions of any religious or ethnic group, and second, you can protect yourself and your loved ones by using evidence-based precautions and listening to the science. As may be clear, these messages are designed to protect people and curb the pandemic while simultaneously reducing xenophobia and outgroup hostility. There is clearly an audience for them in the Middle East: as of this writing, IBB’s videos on the topic have been viewed several million times. 

Thankfully, people’s intellectual curiosity is often strong enough to throw off the shackles placed by restrictive governments and resourceful enough to find ways through information deserts. We should take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be imbued with curiosity, that most precious of human traits – and to have access to the internet, that wonderful web of shared knowledge.

Stay Tuned

If you’re like me, you want a Middle East that is more egalitarian, more pluralistic, and explicitly guided by evidence and reason. You want secular humanism, not sectarianism, governments run by uncorrupt elected representatives, not oligarchs or kleptocrats, and an emphasis on science, not superstition. You want to see greater attention paid to women’s rights and minority rights in a part of the world where they are egregiously neglected. 

If so, pay attention to Ideas Beyond Borders. It has done much in its mere three years, and will probably continue to deliver for a long time. That’s a good thing, because changing entrenched patterns of thinking requires playing the long game. That’s what this is ultimately about: playing a small, incremental part in human progress – even if it takes a long time – by advancing people’s access to different viewpoints and stressing the importance of science, reason, and universal liberal humanism. I can hardly think of a more worthwhile goal.

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Laith Al-Shawaf, Ph.D. is a researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado. His research (with collaborators) has been featured in outlets such as the BBC, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, Slate, World Economic Forum, and Time, and his essays for general audiences have appeared in Areo, PopMatters, and Quilliam. He has taught and conducted research internationally, been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, and is an academic adviser at Ideas Beyond Borders. In 2019, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) named him a Rising Star. You can follow him on Twitter at @LaithAlShawaf.