Bringing ‘weapons of mass instruction’ to the Arab world

Melissa Chen on the battle of ideas in the Middle East.


The Middle East and North Africa are home to just five per cent of the world’s population, but they produce nearly 45 per cent of the world’s terror attacks. A majority of the countries in these areas are run by authoritarian regimes with scant respect for free speech, democracy and human rights. Ideas Beyond Borders was set up to challenge this bleak situation. spiked caught up with its managing director, Melissa Chen, to find out more.

spiked: What does Ideas Beyond Borders do?

Melissa Chen: Our mission is to empower individuals with knowledge that is often suppressed by authoritarian regimes, dictatorships and cultural movements. Our focus is on the Middle East. We create and disseminate knowledge in Arabic. This is not just because my co-founder, Faisal al Mutar, is an Iraqi refugee himself – so we have contacts that we can leverage in the Middle East – but also because there really is a huge need for this in that part of the world. More books are translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic over the past thousand years. Greece has a population of fewer than 11million, but it translates five times as many books from English each year as the 22 Arab countries combined, which have a combined population of 300million. There is a huge knowledge deficit in the Arab world, compared to the world you and I live in. Even with the internet, just one per cent of all online content is in Arabic.

The situation is bad for publishers, partly because it’s very difficult to enforce copyrights. People simply photocopy and distribute books on the black market. It takes us a lot of time to negotiate with authors and publishing houses to get the digital rights to give away Arabic, Kurdish or Farsi translations for free. We also ask for the rights to make videos because what’s most important is getting ideas across. Customers also don’t have very much purchasing power in the Middle East, so buying books is basically like buying perfume – it’s a luxury. Then there is a lack of good book distributors. There are real bureaucratic obstacles to creating distribution networks through bookstores and public libraries.

Most significant is censorship, which has a chilling effect on both publishers and authors. State censorship is one of the fastest ways to inculcate a culture of self-censorship. It’s difficult to be creative and have ideas flourish when you have this entire infrastructure of censorship coming not just from your culture and your religion but also from your government.

spiked: How do you get past the censors?

Chen: We are completely digital. The internet really breaks down these barriers. Maryam Namazi, the British-Iranian secularist, once said that the internet for the Arab world is just like the Gutenberg press for the Enlightenment in Europe. It’s really helping to bypass a lot of these censorship mechanisms. What’s more, each country has its own local censor, and its own minister of the interior or minister of religious affairs, but the internet really democratises everything.

We don’t just translate best-selling books, we also translate Wikipedia articles. Because Wikipedia is completely open-source, it bypasses many of the legal hurdles and intellectual-property issues that present a huge bottleneck for translating books into Arabic.

spiked: Are you selective about what books you translate?

Chen: Absolutely. We choose to disseminate a broad range of ideas that we think will lead to a more pluralistic, more liberal society, like books by Sam Harris and Steven Pinker. We promote works that exemplify universal human values, evidence-based reasoning and critical thinking – whatever ideas will lead to an open society of free expression and tolerance.

If you look at our Wikipedia articles, we have translated a lot of science articles and a lot about evolutionary biology. Because of this, the Muslim Brotherhood has produced hit pieces about us. I don’t know why they feel so sensitive about that in particular – out of all the things we have done. We do a lot in relation to women’s rights and other pro-liberty ideas. We made a Wikipedia page on the Arab slave trade as that didn’t even exist. Imagine parts of your own history not being accessible in your own language. When we first started translating Wikipedia, just 10 per cent of what is available on English Wikipedia was available in Arabic. Think about all of the articles that you and I can access and then you just blot out 90 per cent of it. That’s all they had access to. Wikipedia is supposed to represent the world’s encyclopaedic knowledge in one repository – and they only have 10 per cent of it.

spiked: Successive Western governments have tried to ‘democratise’ the Arab world by bombing it. Do you think you will have more success by fighting the battle of ideas?

Chen: I think the results speak for themselves. The West has spent trillions of dollars on the war on terror and it has largely been a failure. Militarily, we’ve marched into these countries, trying to liberate these people and bring democracy. But if the cultural mindsets and the institutions that favour democracy are not there, why would that succeed? We’ve seen so many examples from Iraq to Egypt where democracy has failed to take root. These places have become breeding grounds for Islamists like ISIS instead. Even where we have liberated people from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the ideology is still there.

At Ideas Beyond Borders, we are proponents of the ‘books not bombs’ philosophy. Weapons of mass instruction are far more effective than weapons of mass destruction. At the end of the day, all these military interventions are used as recruiting tools for the caliphate.

It is a long game. Ideological battles are abstract. It can feel like nothing is happening for a long time. US governments change every four years and it is just easier to start military campaigns rather than focus on long-term education. We are talking about educating a whole lost generation – a generation that has been destabilised, in part thanks to all the wars. Somebody has to do that work if a liberal, pluralistic society is to have any hope of emerging.

spiked: What role can Arab history play in liberalising the Middle East?

Chen: We named our translation programme ‘The House of Wisdom’, or Bayt al-Hikma in Arabic. This was a private library in 8th-century Baghdad that was founded by the Caliph al-Rashid during the Abbasid dynasty. At the time, scientists and scholars came from all over the world to study and exchange ideas. There was a time when cities like Baghdad and even Cairo were like what Paris was to the West during the Enlightenment. Numerous works from the Greek canon were collected and translated in this library and it had a huge effect on Arab thought. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, the libraries in the Arab world, from Cordoba to Damascus and Baghdad, contained many more books and manuscripts than the Greek world.

The Islamic Golden Age was a period of intellectual growth and discovery. Young Arabs need to know that life was not always like what they experience today – a region rife with extremism, dominated by authoritarian governments, lagging behind in scientific output and ranking very low in terms of political freedoms and human rights. There was a time when the Arab world was great. We want to draw them into this larger narrative. This is not an identitarian vision but a universal one. These are ideas that everyone can aspire to. When you value the pursuit of knowledge and the development of science, it allows space for the kind of social and cultural transformation that will encourage tolerance and pluralism.

I think it is really important to tap into that narrative. There was a time, historically, when their religion and their culture was compatible with all these great advances. The fact that words like ‘algebra’, ‘alchemy’ and ‘algorithm’ all have Arabic roots shows just how advanced the Arab world used to be.

Melissa Chen was talking to Fraser Myers.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Will Joli

3rd October 2019 at 6:57 am

IBB is a nice idea but their business model is flawed given Arab culture is high context and not a reading culture. Reading is not promoted. Parents rarely read to their kids. Books aside from the Koran are not valued. Storytelling is the preferred method of knowledge acquisition. To point, Arabs read on average as much in a year as Ms. Chen reads in a week.
Moreover, in large parts of the MENA region, reading comprehension is quite low. One NGO has tested over 10K Arabs across 7 MENA countries and less than half are comprehending at a 3rd grade level in their native language.


29th August 2019 at 6:33 pm

It should be noted that many of the great ‘Islamic’ scholars of the so-called Golden Age were not that Islamic. The Mutakalimun, for example, were heavily indebted to Greek scholarship. The Sufis, perhaps the most attractive part of Islam due to their eirenicism, were and are still very much on the margins of Islam, and despised in some quarters of the Umma. Ibn Arabi’s pantheism, for example, is hardly orthodox Islamic theology.


29th August 2019 at 6:29 pm

They are obviously doing great work but it is not unreasonable to assume that the US government has a hand in this.

moqi fen

27th August 2019 at 5:12 pm

From what I saw in Cairo and amman the arab world is quite keen on a famous Austrian author and an anonymous Russian author

Rich Rostrom

26th August 2019 at 7:42 am

Translating lots of books into Arabic is a great idea, but trying to push selected high-end books conveying complex ideas is not IMO the optimum approach. What might be more effective is a brute-force approach: translate *everything*. Well, not everything, but great globs of popular literature going back 150 years or so.

The complete works of Agatha Christie, Louis L’Amour, Erle Stanley Gardner, Frank Yerby, P. G. Wodehouse, dozens of others. Stuff that’s fun, entertaining, easy to read. The point being that Arabs who read it will be quietly absorbing western culture, outside culture. There is tons of this stuff to throw at them: a firehose stream that by sheer volume could shake up Arab habits of thinking, prejudices, delusions about other countries.

Ven Oods

26th August 2019 at 7:56 pm

“The point being that Arabs who read it will be quietly absorbing western culture, outside culture.”

But wouldn’t that be as much the dreaded ‘cultural appropriation’ as, say, my affecting dreadlocks?

T Zazoo

10th September 2019 at 1:50 am

Beau Geste, The Four Feathers and anything by Capt W.E. Johns.

josef linnhoff

23rd August 2019 at 9:53 pm

Censorship and authoritarian despotism are the root of the crises in the Middle East. There will be no religious, social and cultural Enlightenment in a region filled with Sisi’s and MBS’s, where the act of free speech can literally land you in prison… or worse. (And these same tyrants receive a fair share of Western support, no?)

But am I the only one who is a bit chilled by the undertone of neo-colonialism in this project?! On Spiked – of all places…

Of course, breaking censorship and spreading new ideas and information is praiseworthy and noble. Of course.

But there is surely an Western-induced ideological flavour to the chosen works and authors being translated here… Is the problem with censorship in the Arab world that it prevents ‘backward’ Arabs being ‘enlightened’ by Sam Harris? i.e we still want to turn Arabs into materialistic consumers who will not take their religion too seriously…God-willing… but we dont think bombs are the best way to Westernise…

Can’t the Arab world be allowed to develop its own conception of modernity? or progress? or ideas? or does this have to be spoon-fed to them by us? Does ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ in the Arab *have* to be on Western terms?

On Spiked.. of all places

Mass information and

cliff resnick

23rd August 2019 at 7:05 pm

As to the “Islamic Golden Age” there’s much about this on the internet and one persuasive school of thought claims this golden age was mainly due the the conquered and subugated Christian Assyrians who were well versed in Greek culture. The point is that Islam in itself is a closed authoritarian system of belief where intellectual enquiry in princible goes against the orthodoxy. Much like Galileo and the Roman Church.

josef linnhoff

23rd August 2019 at 9:41 pm

I believe it was the Melkite Christians in medieval Baghdad – a very scholarly community – who did the actual translation of Greek works… Christian philosophers like Yahya b. ‘Ad were major figures in the ‘Islamic’ Golden Age. But this was paid for and in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs and Muslim scholarly class. And there is nothing suprising here – when Muslims spread from Arabia and conquered North Arabia and the Levant in the 7th-8th centuries they encountered much older, more established & deeply rooted Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities. The Muslims were very much the ‘new kids on the block’. Christians had already been around 800 years and had produced their Augustines, Tertullians, Origens etc.. Muslims had been around all of a generation or two. Muslims at the time did the smart move and sponsored Jews and Christians so as to benefit from their established traditions and accumulated wisdom. And after sponsoring the translation the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen etc Muslim scholars took this on and debated it amongst themselves. And in time, the Muslim community produced its own fair share of intellectual titans, as any fair and object (non-ideological) reading of history will show.

Ven Oods

23rd August 2019 at 4:53 pm

“When you value the pursuit of knowledge and the development of science, it allows space for the kind of social and cultural transformation that will encourage tolerance and pluralism.”

One can see why the Muslim Brotherhood (what… no Sisters?) would take a dim view of that .

Gerard Barry

23rd August 2019 at 2:11 pm

So refreshing to see attempts being made to make the genuinely intolerant Middle East more tolerant rather than trying to make the already tolerant West more tolerant than it already is.

Emma Gogglepantz

23rd August 2019 at 11:09 am

The sad thing about Melissa and Faisal’s endeavour is that they have to point us to an obsolete part of islam’s history, it’s golden age, in order for us to have something to cling onto.

The real turn for the worse in islam was les the Mongol’s destruction of the libraries containing the science and art and more the arrival of Caliph al-Mutawakkil on the scene.

He was a fundamentalist who said that all that fancy-schmancy science stuff was heretical. The arab world is a shithole as a *direct* effect of the writings of Muhammad in the kuran.

Melissa and Faisal know this but need to have a pragmatic attitude to islam and avoid attacking it head-on. Giving the arab world the fake excuse of the mongols having extinguished the islamic golden age is sadly crucial to giving an escape route to the arab world, out of islam into enlightenment.

That the mongols are to blame for the end of the islamic golden age has to be one of the biggest white lies in the universe. It’s sad that in order to introduce the enlightenment values (one of which is the ideal of Truth) to a large chunk of the world, we’re forced to use lies to get there.

Good on Melissa and Faisal.

Emma Gogglepantz

23rd August 2019 at 11:14 am

*less the Mongol’s …
*its Golden Age …

Ven Oods

23rd August 2019 at 4:56 pm

Glad you corrected that, since ‘les the Mongol’ was new to me.


23rd August 2019 at 10:29 am

we have translated a lot of science articles and a lot about evolutionary biology. Because of this, the Muslim Brotherhood has produced hit pieces about us. I don’t know why they feel so sensitive about that in particular
This needs inspection. Surely she’s got some idea?

Michael Lynch

23rd August 2019 at 9:56 am

Fascinating piece, thank you. I remember David Starkey, a brilliant historian, saying that the Arab world had contributed nothing toward art and science for hundreds of years during a TV debate. Of course, he was roundly slated by the other participants!

Jerry Owen

25th August 2019 at 9:49 am

Douglas Murray says the same !


29th August 2019 at 6:30 pm

Relative to the west, the Islamic world has been in relative decline since the time of Shah Abbas.

Hana Jinks

23rd August 2019 at 5:28 am

I can’t possibly rubbish you guys anymore after this and the story by Mr Daniel. Thanks so much.

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