Omar Mohammed is a historian and a civilian journalist. But until December 2017, he was known only as Mosul Eye, an anonymous blogger documenting life in ISIS–occupied Mosul, Iraq.

“It was quite a huge responsibility — difficult, dangerous, risky,” Mohammed told the News. “But at the same time, when you feel yourself taking this responsibility, you are also feeling the power of what you are doing, so that’s how you keep the strength.”

After seeking asylum in Europe, Mohammed revealed his identity through the Associated Press. Less than a year later, Mohammed is at Yale as a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

At a Thursday panel at the Jackson Institute, Mohammed discussed ISIS and Islamic extremism alongside Yale Law School Postdoctoral Research Fellow Cole Bunzel.

The panel, which drew roughly 15 students and other World Fellows, explored the politics of “takfir”, a controversial concept in Islam in which a member of the religion can declare another a non-believer. The practice is often waged as a political weapon, the panelists said. Each year, the World Fellows program hosts 16 global leaders for a four-month residential program.

All World Fellows, who regularly host panels and other public events throughout their four-month stay, will hold two to three panels each week through Nov. 6.

In an interview with the News, Mohammed said he applied to the World Fellows program because he was a firm believer in globalization as a means of enriching discourse. He added that Mosul was too closed off from the rest of the world.

“Having the city globalized will give it more power to fight against this terrorist group or any other groups,” he said. “It’s not like having an army. When I [say] fight, I mean fighting in terms of education [and] culture, so that the city has the strength to stand against occupation.”

At the World Fellows program at Yale, Mohammed said he has found the global perspectives and discourse that he believes are so urgent, adding that he hopes to continue to learn from the other fellows.

Mohammed and the World Fellows participate in weekly seminars with one another, meet speakers from around the world, have the opportunity to audit any Yale class and mentor and regularly interact with Yale graduate and undergraduate students.

“I’ve learned a lot from them, like one of the fellows from Rwanda, and he has been involved in the reconciliation between the Tutsi and Hutu,” he said. “I’ve been trying to learn from him how to [reconcile] between different groups. Especially in Iraq, my country, [where] the social code, the social system, has been damaged by these groups.”

For the hourlong panel, Mohammed and Cole broke down “takfir” and examined its exploitation and politicization by ISIS and other extremist groups. Mohammed explained that “takfir” is a concept in Islamic discourse whereby individuals, particularly those in positions of religious power, can declare another person non-believer, or “kafir” in Arabic. In certain sects of Islam, “takfir” is an essential part of faith, and believers have the responsibility to identify and excommunicate non-believers, he added.

Living in Mosul, Mohammed said he saw firsthand how extremist groups exploited “takfir” to justify violence against individuals and ethnic and religious populations.

Over the course of the panel, Mohammed and Cole described “takfir” as essential to ISIS’ political, religious and philosophical doctrine. Mohammed related the discussion to current events by alluding to aspects of extremist culture relating to “takfir”. He told the attendees that ISIS incorporates “takfir” into education, citing a young child growing up in Saudi Arabia who is already familiar with the concept.

“He is six years old, and he knows who is “kafir”,” he described. “He knows what consequences will come if you are non-believer. He is just six years old. Imagine what he will think when he grows up.”

The panel concluded with questions from the audience and a discussion of how to “deactivate” “takfir” in extremism.

Veronica Baker GRD ’20, a first-year grad student in the Jackson Institute, said she attended the panel because of her interest in Iraq and because she had read a lot about Omar’s experience in Mosul.

“Learning from Cole and Omar about ISIS’ use of “takfir” was very interesting,” she wrote in an email to the News. “Sometimes, when we study politics and security in the Middle East, we don’t always focus enough on the specific ways in which religion is weaponized in conflict. I found it valuable to learn more about the religious doctrine employed by ISIS and other terrorist groups to recruit followers, harness power and justify violence.”

Laura Fajardo MBA ’19, who heard about the event through a newsletter, said she attended the panel to hear what it was like for Mohammed to experience the seizure of Mosul and write about the occupation in an unbiased manner.

In an interview with the News before event, Elpida Rouka, a 2018 World Fellow in attendance and former chief of staff of the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria, emphasized the powerful impact of listening to Mohammed’s firsthand experiences on discussions about global issues.

“I think the importance of having someone like Omar speaking out so powerfully about the destruction that was felt in his country and his region … are the lessons learned not to repeat the mistakes that gave perfect ground for ISIL to come up,” Rouka said.

On Sept. 26 and 27, the World Fellows Program will host two panels — “The Role of Civil Society Actors in West Africa” and “The Arts, Culture and Education in Places of Crisis: Case Studies from Iraq,” hosted once again by Mohammed.

Helena Lyng-Olsen | helena.lyng-olsen@yale.edu 

Curtis Sun | curtis.sun@yale.edu .