UNESCO called it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history,” condemning ISIS, who burned the University of Mosul library to the ground in 2015. Over a million books, historic maps, and manuscripts were turned to ash in a deliberate attempt not only to destroy the library itself, but the ideas held within its shelves.
“Authoritarians and extremists have been destroying libraries since the beginning of time,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, 2020 Elevate Prize Fellow and founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, an organization that focuses on promoting independent ideas that foster critical thinking, civil rights, science, and pluralism in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. “The original house of wisdom in Baghdad was burned by the Mongols and today ISIS and Boko Haram constantly attack libraries and centers of knowledge and discussion.”
As news of the Mosul library’s ruin spread, universities around the world, libraries such as the British Museum and international organizations like Book Aid were eager to help rebuild and re-stock. But logistically, there were many obstacles to overcome: many books were in English rather than Arabic, and most key textbooks were still missing. That’s where Ideas Beyond Borders was able to play a key role to help.
“We co-ordinated with them to provide 4000 books and 20 computers and printers,” says Faisal, “as well as creating small lending libraries while the re-building was taking place.” The books were selected by lecturers and professors, so they would meet the specific needs of students and their courses.
In addition to physical books, the organization also donated e-books and journal subscriptions from around the world to widen students’, professors’, and researchers’ knowledge base, and encourage international collaboration and idea-sharing. And the organization remains committed to online knowledge sharing as a vital resource in the face of extremism and destruction.
“When we look at what is happening in Afghanistan, we see a country entering a new dark age, especially for women and girls. But by working online, we can help create education and tools that circumvent censorship to empower people with education — so they can build their own country.
“Extremism relies on the censorship of ideas,” Faisal adds. “That’s exactly what happened with the library at Mosul. ISIS did not want people from Mosul to connect with challenging ideas, and see other ways of looking at the world. Their goal was to destroy knowledge and culture. My goal for Ideas Beyond Borders is to create a knowledge movement, and make information accessible across the Middle East.”