As I approach 31, I would like to reflect on the pivotal five minutes that defined my life’s work thus far. The five minutes demonstrated to me just how imperative the fight for critical thinking and freedom is, even in parts of the world where defending those values could get one killed.
Growing up in Baghdad, I watched as my friends and classmates became radicalized by hateful ideology and bad actors. One by one, they fell to the pressures of propaganda and fear-mongering. Many sympathized with groups including Al Qaeda. Bravely or naively, I was vocal among my peers about my views against extremists. I was forthright about my pro-freedom and pro-US leanings. As I later learned, the cost of honesty in certain parts of the world might very well be my life.
In 2007 I was walking to get ice cream and buy bread in my neighborhood in the Al Adel district in West Baghdad. What might seem to some as a relatively low-risk activity was, for me, a dangerous endeavor. Many doctors and their children were kidnapped and killed during this time. The doctor’s office next to my father’s was targeted. My dad decided he must leave for the United Kingdom for safety. As I made my way towards the ice cream shop with the sun beating down on my face, I had the feeling I was being watched or followed. I had garnered a reputation in the community as a resistor, and those with the audacity to think for themselves have a target on their backs. I quickened my pace and continued on.
As I walked down the main street, a black car carrying men with covered faces approached me. Just five minutes away from the ice cream shop, I was suddenly overcome by terror. Many forget about the secret third option in the fight or flight response: freeze. Unable to move, my legs became as stiff as a board. It was as if I had lost control of my own body. For a moment, I was paralyzed. The men started screaming and pointing, “Get him!” I still couldn’t move. My mind was screaming “Run!” but my faculties would not cooperate. Just in time, a United States Humvee drove around the corner. Seeing this the men decided to retreat. They weren’t interested in a fair fight. Once they were gone, I started running back to my family’s house as fast as I possibly could. I got neither the bread nor the ice cream that day.
That day was the closest I have ever come to being kidnapped or killed for my pursuit of the truth and my unwillingness to succumb to radicalization. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the only time I experienced this.
Several months later, my eldest brother Samir was kidnapped and killed on his way to work in northern Baghdad. I will never forget listening to my mother cry. Every waking moment for months, she was wracked with grief. As I studied for my final exams in my last year of high school, I could hear her cries in the other room. Despite all of this, I was able to pass. I knew Samir wouldn’t want his death to have been in vain. I knew I had work to do and that I needed the education to do it.
Escaping a potential kidnapping and murder just months before the death of my brother played a monumental role in shaping who I am today and why I am doing the work of fighting for enlightenment values in the Middle East. I have witnessed firsthand the death, destruction, and grief that radicalization yields.
My story is a struggle between my wanting to live free from authoritarianism and extremism and others wanting me to die because of it.
While my classmates were joining radical groups like Al Qaeda, I would spend hours reading information online in English. My ability to read these texts gave me the knowledge and resolve needed to reject the advances of those who sought to indoctrinate me. My peers were not so lucky. Their fathers didn’t take them to secretly listen to radio banned by the official Iraqi government when they were younger, but mine did.
10 years after my brother died and after 4 years of living in America as a refugee, I decided to start Ideas Beyond Borders with my dear friend Melissa Chen from Singapore. Our programs champion a positive alternative to the extremism, authoritarianism, censorship, and violence that plagues the Middle East. Working closely with youth and partners in the region to make sure their voices are heard and their needs are met. We’re empowering youth across the region to use critical thinking skills to engage in a lively, spirited discussion on controversial and often banned topics.
Faisal is the founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders, an NGO that translates and promotes ideas that foster critical thinking, civil rights, science, and pluralism in the Middle East. He is also a fellow at the Elevate Prize Foundation and an honorary alumnus of Students For Liberty.