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After the Burning

The University of Mosul’s library, once home to over one million titles, was destroyed in war. Now, book by book, the library is being rebuilt.

I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, a teen witness to the rise of violent theocrats in my country. In 2007, Al Qaeda kidnapped and killed my brother Samir while he was on his way to work with his friends. Our neighborhood police station, which was right in front of my high school, was blown up. Just two years after my brother disappeared, I was forced to escape the country after I was placed on one of Al Qaeda’s local death lists for speaking out against their ideology. 

I arrived in the United States as a refugee in 2013 and started a nonprofit, Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB), that focuses on making inaccessible information accessible for millions of people throughout the Middle East, especially the information that is censored by theocrats and authoritarians. In less than four years, we now have more than 4.8 million subscribers on social media, and we have added more than 18 million words to the Arabic internet on an array of subjects—critical thinking, minority rights, the theory of evolution: every taboo subject that extremists want censored. 

But while the digital world offers endless opportunities in circumventing censorship laws under protection by the US’ First Amendment, it still has limitations on changing the situation on the ground for people who live or previously lived under theocratic regimes. 

Some of these people are students at the University of Mosul, one of the largest educational and research centers in the Middle East and the second-largest in Iraq. The university received worldwide attention in 2016 when US-led coalition fighters, believing that the library was an Islamic State command center, destroyed most of the library’s one million books in an airstrike. In 2017, the Islamic State burned what was left—“a literal smokescreen,” wrote Phineas Rueckert in Global Citizen, “to protect themselves from the advancing Iraqi army.” Afterward, the Islamic State used the library as a local base and the chemistry laboratories as a chemical weapons production site.

Related: Is Progress Possible? Misinformation in the Middle East – A Conversation with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

“It feels very hard and bitter,” Ali Al-Baroodi, a professor at the university, wrote to me about the library’s fate. It’s not just the loss of the physical books and knowledge they held, but the atmosphere of place. “Enjoying the aroma of books and the beauty of silence and tranquility inside it is something we all gravely miss.”

By the end of 2020, my nonprofit, IBB, had obtained a list of more than 6,000 titles of academic books that the University of Mosul desperately needed: dictionaries and academic textbooks such as Introduction to Anatomy and Introduction to Chemical Engineering as well as books covering enlightenment ideas such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

With a not a small dose of luck, we were able to find most of the books the university requested either locally in Baghdad’s famous “Muntabi Street,” a hub of bookselling for over a thousand years, or in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon.

In addition to the books, we also supplied computers and printers with internet access to allow the students and faculty to learn more about the world that the Islamic State and their allies have worked so hard to censor. We also began a program at the university that teaches students to become knowledge seekers and contributors. In partnership with Wikimedia, we train students every semester on not only how to accurately obtain knowledge on the internet but also how to contribute ideas and document information. 

“It also feels bitter,” Al-Baroodi wrote to me, “that history repeats itself and that extremism will never vanish no matter how sophisticated or developed our age may reach.”

This is the future we are trying to prevent. From sectarianism to governance, there are many issues that people in Iraq disagree on today. But we are all united against violent theocrats’ attempt to erase Iraq’s identity through the destruction of the University of Mosul’s library. We are striving to ensure Iraq’s heritage and the world’s knowledge will never be erased again.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Raised in Baghdad, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar has firsthand experience with authoritarian regimes. An outspoken writer and activist, he survived the Iraq Civil War, the murder of his brother, and several kidnapping attempts... Read More