Faisal Saeed’s Fight for Human Rights and Secularism

By Aslam Kakar


Faisal Saeed al-Mutar is an Iraqi born writer, freethinker, computer geek, and human rights activist. He is also an advocate of secularism and the free market of ideas. Faisal is the founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement and Secular Post. At the age of 24, his understanding of politics of the Middle East and the Muslim world is just fascinating. I believe that Faisal is a sane voice misunderstood at home and in some quarters abroad. Sharing his views will be a great help to freethinkers in the Muslim world and elsewhere in the fight against radical Islam.

Can you tell me about yourself and your background, and the work that you do now?

I was born in the Babylon city of Iraq at the time of the First Gulf War, 1991. And was raised in a liberal family environment in Iraq’s capital Baghdad by liberal educated parents. But, as a ‘war generation kid’, that did not protect me from experiencing marginalization, repression, and violence in the country. The ever present sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias in Iraq, partly, influenced my thinking as a humanist and freethinker. Particularly, my concerns grew, as I predicted a sectarian civil war in the post-2005 elections in the wake of US invasion of Iraq. The rise of extremist groups like Qaeda, Mehdi Army, and others further cofounded the already fragile security environment. And it was around that time that my elder brother and cousin were killed by al-Qaeda. In 2007, I went to Lebanon, where I applied for a student visa to the UK, but, it was rejected. Then, I applied for refugee in Malaysia through UNHCR. Finally, it was in Malaysia that my application for refugee in US, again through UNHCR, was accepted in 2013. I live in New York and Washington DC now. And currently, I am working on a project called movements.org to support secularist and liberal Muslim activists and journalists in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East.

What made you become into who stand for today? Any circumstances or personalities that have had formative influences on your thinking?

That is a very interesting question. I will say a liberal household and freedom. And my quest for finding the objective truth. I have read the Quran, Bible, Torah, and other religious scriptures. I challenged my self on these readings. I thought either one of them is true or all are false. And my conclusion was that none are true. And that drove me to study science and philosophy. In the realm of science and social sciences, I am largely influenced by John Stuart Mill, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. In addition, Ayad Jamal Aldin, a prominent Iraqi intellectual, politician, and religious cleric, Ayad Allawi, a politician and the interim Prime Minister of Iraq from 2004-2005, and the amazing secular and liberal free thinkers from the Middle East, especially within the young generation, have also immensely influenced my vision as a freethinker.

You call yourself a ‘freethinker.’ What do you mean by it? And how do you differentiate it from the term ‘atheist’?

Freethinking, to me, means intellectual curiosity, thinking with reason, asking tough questions, and the freedom to look for answers. The term says much about one’s personal values and outlook. While the term ‘atheist’ does not say much about the moral values and outlook of a person. Therefore, I prefer to be called a ‘freethinker’.

But the problem, with certain parallels, in the ME and Asian societies, which I call the ‘curse of the East’, is that free and individual thinking almost does not exist. People subscribe to Umma, tribe, and family and community values. As a result, one can not freely choose what one values. And, so, there is less thinking about what elevates human mind and success. It is particularly due to the perceived prevalent notions of ‘cultural supremacy’ and conservative religious orthodoxy.

What is your opinion on the American invasion of Iraq? How do you see the pre-invasion Saddam Iraq and the post-invasion Iraqi state?

I think it really depends on who you ask in Iraq. On principle, dictatorships are bad and evil forms of government. And so was Saddam’s on that count. He was involved in the genocide of Kurds and the persecution of Iraqi Shias among other atrocities.

But the idea that you can thrive a democracy in Iraq between Wilayat al-Faqih Iran and Wahabi Saudi Arabia is a delusion. These two Shia and Sunni aggressor states will never to the best of their capability let that happen in the region.

Saddam was a secularist. But he became a conservative religious orthodox after he initiated his Faith Campaign in 1991. He changed, in an appeal to Islamists, the motto of Iraqi flag to ‘Allah-u-Akbar’. And there is also some truth in the Bush administration’s allegation that Saddam had links with Qaeda. He also used to send money to the families of suicide bombers in Palestine.

The US made mistakes and had a disorganized plan about Iraq’s future in the wake of the invasion. The support to Shias and the alienation of Sunnis and Kurds from power led to civil war and fragmentation of the Iraqi society. It also created a political vacuum for groups like Qaeda and now ISIL or IS and their pathological vision of Islamic Caliphate.

What do you think are some of the main problems of the Muslim world, particularly of the Middle East?

The number one main problem is corruption. All sorts of corruption. From moral to political to economic. For example, in Iraq, you can not get, even, your legitimate work done without bribing the government. And Iraq is considered as the second most corrupt country in the world.

Second, conservative religious orthodoxy is the main source of unrest and violence, and the lagging behind of the region in context to global development. The trio of the Wilayat al-Faqih (Iran), Wahabi (Saudi Arabia), and Salafi (Qatar) brands of Islam stands in a sharp contrast to democracy and secular values. And all forms of dictatorships in the region thrive on these conservative religious ideologies. Also, oppression, censorship of press, blatant human and women’s rights violations, and lack of enlightenment are prevalent because of conservative religious orthodoxy.

Third, conspiracy theories. It is at the root of all evils. Muslims believe that the West is responsible for all problems in their region. They think it (West) has nothing better to do but to plot to destroy Muslims. While, I agree that Western interventions in the region have some serious implications for its politics and society, they do not account for all our ills.

We have to come out of this hypercritical mood and stop outsourcing our problems to the ‘enemy’. And, instead, start some soul-searching and self-reflection. Unless, we do that and recognize our own flaws, not much is going to change. And, one of the main reasons why we have not been able to do so is the pride of Arab nationalism and racial and religious supremacy. That is the fourth problem.

What was the story of the ‘Arab Spring’? Why do you think is ME resilient to democracy and secular values?

I think it was real. But its value and outcomes were overestimated. The majority protested for economic rights. It was not about protesting against dictatorships per se.  Rather, it was more about money. Some cases like Tunisia was a success. The autocratic president Ben Ali was ousted by the protestors. And afterwards, democratic elections were held and a new representative government came to power. But on the other hand, Yemen is a complete failure. Libya became a mess. And Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess too. The Egyptians protested against Mobarik because they thought he was the puppet of the West. But, now with Sisi, not much has changed.

Another interesting dimension is the sectarian angle of the protests and regional politics generally, which I call ‘circus of the Middle East’. In Syria, the majority Sunnis are against Shia Assad. But Shia Iran, Hezbollah, and the ruling Shia government in Iraq support Assad. Iran is pro-Hezbollah and hates both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It is also against ISIS. And ISIS hates both Iran and Hezbollah. On the other hand, the Saudis, the Turks, and the Qataris support anti-Assad forces in Syria. Qatar and Saudi Arabia hate Iran. And they think that Iran is more dangerous to their existence than Israel and ISIS. And Qatar and Saudi Arabia have had conferences to support ISIS. Israel is against ISIS, but it thinks that Iran is more dangerous to their existence than ISIS.

Is Islam compatible with secularism and modernity?

It really depends on the interpretation of Islam. Some interpretations are compatible, whereas others are not. The Salafi, Wahhabi, and Wilayat al-Faqih interpretations of Islam are absolutely incompatible. And the dilemma is that the ratio of liberal Muslims to conservatives is very small. If one Muslim, for instance, questions conservative religious orthodoxy, ten others conform to it. That makes it extremely difficult for secular values to prevail over radical Islam. Therefore, I think that the war against radical Islam is the war of the century. And it will be very long.

How do you see Islamophobia in the West?  

I think the correct term would be anti-Muslim bigotry. And I believe it exists. It developed in reaction to the rise of radical Islamism, particularly after the 9/11, which showed a very terrible reality. I also think that there is a correlation between terrorist attacks and the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry in the West. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, and the more recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino are just a tip of the ice berg. But, the Muslim apologists have constantly lied that Islam is a religion of peace. And that any body who is critical of radical Islam must be coming from a point of bigotry. I have been criticized as a Zionist myself.  Conservative Muslims are not ready yet to acknowledge that there is a serious problem with the trio interpretations of Islam.

Unless we acknowledge the problem and defeat the evil ideology, a change in the anti-Muslim bigotry is very unlikely. But, I also believe that Muslims are not a monolith, and I am strongly against the idea of collective punishment. So, it is unwise of some public figures and writers in the West to paint the entire Muslim world with the same brush while tackling the issue of radical Islam. The wise strategy is to single out radial Muslims and defeat them.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not the author’s own.