Can Iraq's geeks save the country?

Story highlights

  • Hackerspaces have begun operating in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Middle East
  • Hackerspaces are open-access laboratories intended to promote entrepreneurship
  • Its members hope to generate tech solutions to some of the problems facing Iraqis
Politicians, generals and clerics have all played their part in shaping the new Iraq, with varying results.
Now the geeks are giving it a shot.
In recent months, Baghdad residents from science, engineering and tech backgrounds have been meeting regularly to participate in Iraq's first "hackerspace."
Known as Fikra Space, from the Arabic word for "idea," this open-access laboratory is intended as a technological playground to promote collaborative innovation, entrepreneurship -- and potentially solutions to some of the problems facing the country.
"There's nothing else like this here," said Salih Ammar, a 16-year-old high school student with an interest in smartphone technology, who has become heavily involved in the project. "It's open for all people, no matter their ages and their religion."
Sectarian tensions have been a hallmark of life in Iraq following the ouster of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Shia Arabs form the largest group in the country, but for centuries were dominated by the Sunni minority. Today, Shias dominate the government, and Sunni activists routinely protest what they consider discriminatory treatment.
The hackerspace concept, where participants were free to drop in, experiment with specialist tech equipment and share ideas, has been imported to Iraq via Bilal Ghalib, a 27-year-old Iraqi-American. Ghalib became involved in hackerspaces when he visited about 50 across the United States in 2009, shooting footage for a possible documentary.
The model, he told CNN, had originated in Germany in the 1990s, but had taken off in the U.S. in the wake of the global financial crisis, as skilled, newly unemployed people sought different ways to re-tool and channel their energies in a more entrepreneurial way.
Ghalib says he saw parallels with the situation across the Middle East where a young generation looking for greater control of their own destinies were being worn down by high unemployment and political instability.
"How do you look into the future and see your (hand) in it?" he added. "That's what entrepreneurship is, putting control back into your hands and letting you create what you want to see and make a living doing it."
Ghalib started Fikra Space during a flying visit to Iraq in October, paid for through crowd-funding to his organization GEMSI (the Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative).
Having put the word out through online networks, he convened a series of workshops to demonstrate the new technologies people could play with in the setting -- such as a 3D printer -- and to introduce them to the ethos of the hackerspace itself.
Since then, the group, which meets in the offices of a local journalism institute, has been drawing as many as 30 active participants to its meetings, held weekly if security allows, said Fikra Space member Mujtaba Zuhair.
Although attacks by sectarian militants in Iraq have decreased since the height of the insurgency in 2006 and 2007, religious violence is still common and security remains a prime concern for civil society groups and other organizations pushing a progressive agenda.
Zuhair, a 19-year-old student with an interest in electronics and programming, said many locals struggled to wrap their heads around the concept, while Ghalib added that the project has been regarded with suspicion in some quarters.