Young Iraqis promoting science, evolution, and broader scientific thinking

When it comes to Iraq, certain type of stories dominate the news media. They are mostly about violence, political issues, or sectarian strife. Or they focus on cultural issues (see for example see this documentary about a Iraqi Heavy Metal band). It is therefore wonderful to hear about a couple of Iraqi groups promoting science. From Niqash.org (H/T juancole.com):

One of the most unique groups in this category is made up of young men and women who are fierce promoters of science as a partial answer to their community’s sectarian conflicts. The group is called Real Sciences and works together with another associated group called the Iraqi Translation Project. Both groups have their own websites and they also have popular Facebook pages – boasting over 130,000 Likes from fans altogether – and they regularly post translations of popular scientific articles on everything from why human beings enjoy running to how cavemen used their hearing to, most recently, the apparent presence of waterways on the planet Mars.

Here are the websites of Real Sciences and Iraqi Translation Project. These sites look quite good and all of this is really laudable. But when I hear about people getting threats for talking about evolutionary theory, I become a little bit more skeptical. For example, here is the paragraph on this topic:

The group’s translators often venture into fields not common among local Arabic readers such as the subject of evolutionary psychology. They also often cross red lines when topics touch on creationism versus Darwin’s theory of evolution. One member has translated many important books by authors like British philosopher A.C. Grayling, US particle physicist and religious sceptic Victor Stenger, and US historian and noted atheist Richard Carrier. But he cannot be credited for his translations because he would be in danger; he uses an alias.

Lumping evolution with prominent atheist activists like A.C. Grayling, the late Victor Stenger, and Richard Carrier is problematic. Let me be clear here. I don’t think they should be getting any threats – and they should be absolutely free to write about atheism as well. But unless you are in ISIS territory (but then they banned mathematics and social studies along with evolution) or are linking evolution to atheism, the reaction to evolution is usually not that strong. In neighboring Iran, evolution certainly is not an issue. But then I don’t know much about Iraq, and evolution may indeed be a “red line”…but I will keep a grain of salt with me. Back to the article:

The group (Real Sciences) was formed in 2012 because the members’ passion for science was not being fulfilled by the local market. The Iraqi book market predominantly sells religious books, which often promote hatred and sectarianism, books about Communism and old pan-Arab style books with nationalistic leanings. There are not many science books or magazines available at Mutanabi Street, Baghdad’s famous street of book sellers, which pretty much represents what is available in Iraq; if you can’t find it on Mutanabi Street, you won’t find it elsewhere in Iraq.

Real SciencesWith the occasional exception, the scientific magazines and books for sale on Mutanabi Street were either very scarce or mostly outdated. In 2011 the Real Sciences group was formed, with less than five people at that stage. In 2013, some of the group members with a better command of English started the Iraqi Translation Project, volunteering to translate important scientific materials and promoting scientific breakthroughs via social media. Today the two groups work in parallel even though they no longer share members and are independent of one another.

Members of the Real Sciences group and the Iraqi Translation group helped immensely with the preparation of this populist initiative, volunteering not only their time and effort but also their personal libraries, only to find themselves sidelined by other members of the group later on.

Security threats are the main problem hindering the group’s progress on the ground today, says Atheel Fawzi, one of the Real Sciences group’s Baghdad-based founders. In fact, many of the group members have left the country over the years even while their presence on social media is still very strong.

“While the group’s members were effective contributors at many independent and government-sponsored conferences and events, the fear of personal prosecution and the exodus of many of our valuable friends in the group were what stopped us from organizing ourselves into a registered NGO,” Fawzi explains.

Read this fascinating article here.

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