John Kirbow: Implementing Human Rights Through Reason

John Kirbow is a an Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran who worked as a cultural expert and member of the US Army Special Operations community, having served in Nigeria, Baghdad, Basra, Europe, and US Central Command (CENTCOM), Tampa. His current passion is applied social science. A devout linguist, John speaks – to varying degrees – Arabic, Farsi, German, and Spanish as well as decent Russian, and some Pashto, Urdu / Hindi, some Serbian / Croatian, and lapsed Swahili (hopefully to be revived soon). He also served in his civilian life as a high-level cultural and language specialist in Afghanistan as a DoD GS-13 with a Brigade Combat Team, which included working with tribal leaders and helping discuss and negotiate face-to-face with high-profile Taliban. He conducted a personal venture to the Andes community of Cusco, Peru, doing sustainable development and immersion-based socio-cultural research with the indigenous Quechua population, learning baseline conversational Quechua. As a member of the Special Operations community, some of his main specialties were communications, language, social and cultural terrain mapping, and understanding the ‘information environment’.

This year, MALA is spotlighting individual stories from men and women who take a stand to eliminate violence against women, both nationally and globally. Our community looks forward to supporting UN Women’s Orange the World Campaign to support efforts to end violence against women and girls worldwide. UN Women and partners around the world are marking the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, launching from International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th until UN’s International Human Rights Day on December 10th.


My name is John Kirbow. I am a speaker and lover of languages (including German, Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, Russian, Pashto, and Urdu, with lapsed Swahili, Serbian and Quechua). I have a longstanding passion for anthropology, culture and human cultural immersion. I am a New Yorker who has lived and worked around the world, included three wonderful years in southern Germany.

Originally from Atlanta, GA, I am a veteran of the US Army, with time in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Europe, and US Central Command (CENTCOM). I was a GS-13 in Afghanistan as a cultural ‘terrain mapper’, using applied social science, language and psychology to build bridges of understanding between the Coalition and the Afghan population. As the founder of Reason Revival, I focus on bringing science, empathy and reason into politics and sensitive social issues, to help “reason-based compassion” eventually become a wider movement, globally. I focus heavily on the issue of human rights and freedoms, and how we can use our best tools of dynamic social science, behavioral understanding, media, and cyber to help empower pockets of science, free-thought, and dissident voices across societies.

I started teaching myself Classical and Standard Arabic in my late teens, which included reciting and reading (and very loosely memorizing) a sizable portion of the Quran. This became a greatly enjoyable morning routine. While I myself am not a Muslim, I strove early on to learn, understand, and immerse in Islamic communities and various dialects of the beautiful Arabic language, from the ground up. I’ve been deeply involved in the issues of anti-Muslim bigotry, tribalism, sectarian violence, terror, as well as the plight of religious minorities, since 2004.

Back in 2007, I informally drafted a comprehensive, multi-faceted ‘strategic communications’ campaign, which could occur over media and cyber platforms to amplify progressive narratives (through the lens of behavioral science, psychology and target audience) and engage Islamic societies. I dug through the Quran and Hadithic jurisprudence to discover arguments for a productive harmony between Islam, pluralism and human rights. I hoped that one day this could become a citizen-led initiative. This is becoming increasingly realized.

My current project and its focus: A Convergence for Muslim-led science and human rights movements across Muslim societies. I want to give a summary of a serious endeavor I am engaged in with people and groups who share such a passion. This project is about building an unprecedented ‘convergence’ – a collaboration across different people, groups, organizations, and skillsets – to amplify how we can support dissidents, counter-narratives, pluralism, scientific thinking, and reason / science / human rights movements across the Islamic societies. Another serious component of this is how we can get more of the Western world to support it, in solidarity. Not by dictating from the ‘top-down’ but by actively and generously listening, and connecting with activists and thinkers on the ground, within Muslim societies and communities. To support them by helping give them a voice. And by increasing the reach of existing voices. To apply nuanced communication in helping them resonance with a tapestry of audiences, and across a diversity of media platforms and modes of dissemination. This includes sharing our best tools for cyber security and real-time security support to those under duress and death threats.

Ideally, this will be about scale, across communities, borders, countries and societies. It is also about capacity building. It is about social entrepreneurship and social innovation: to build the capabilities – and the institutional knowledge – to bring our best tools and resources together in order to respond in real time to threats, and to the needs of dissidents. To build on these capabilities, and continually refine and improve them. The end goal, in a sense, is to have a more robust mechanism to respond in real time to the media, cyber and security needs of a wider

number of dissidents, freethinkers and progressive activists within closed societies.
Part of this will involve cultivating open and ongoing relationships with potential funders

and venture philanthropists, through a kind of ‘incubator approach’: testing different ideas and bringing in the best minds and motivated thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs. I feel the importance of this on a deep level, through the hardship and struggles I’ve been through during the last 4 years as a social entrepreneur. Experiencing the challenges, failures and successes of this unsung endeavor adds a level of urgency to how we help social innovators worldwide.

My personal connection to the fight for human rights. I am currently corresponding with women who are living under the threat of abuse, exile and death, in places I know firsthand. This is often soul crushing, to be honest and upfront. I often feel helpless to do anything, so I focus on the things I can do. I have also seen the plight of women in places most women in free societies can’t fathom living in. Yet I have also seen strong women in these same places who lead fulfilling lives, which inspires me all the more to better understand and support women’s movements worldwide.

Another personal attachment I have to this issue is my time living or working in places around the world where human dignity is under assault, and where the voices of women have the smallest visible footprint, yet the most powerful impact behind the scenes. I’ve seen this in South America. I’ve seen it in Africa. In Central Europe. And in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The Iraqi elections in 2005 greatly stand out for me in a very personal way. I have seen firsthand the deeply encouraging and uplifting examples of bold, passionate men and women who defied the threat of insurgents, sniper fire, kidnapping, torture, threat to families, oppressive militias, and social pressures, to boldly go vote and proudly and defiantly show the purple finger that has come to symbolize bravery at its finest peaks on the human landscape. I have also seen the soul-crushing defeat of hope in the eyes and voice of many in this same population, by Iraqis who merely want to live their lives amidst the bombings, shootings, and fear brought to these voting sights, and into the everyday life of the country. Movements for human rights and freedoms should have the same robust information campaign and grassroots organization across social media that governments and extremists do. This is something I have wanted to help change for a decade, and we are starting to see this emerge in deeply encouraging ways.

One thing I see is that women are at the forefront of Muslim-led efforts to support a global culture of change, across borders and frontiers. This newfound grassroots effort is perhaps the realization of my hopes and aspirations. I have spoken with women (including people with Malala Yousafzai’s wonderful campaign) from various parts of the world, who are some of the most passionate voices in the long fight for equality and human dignity. I have been humbled to be in their presence.

My view on the role of science, knowledge and moral progress in human rights revolutions. As a human species that has undergone deeply important stages of moral progress over the centuries, we know several pillars of such progress are undeniable: ideas matter, and knowledge, reason, and compassion matter. Equally important are those fighting for these things amidst fundamentalism, dogmatism and intolerance, as such people and their voices have paved the way for this moral progress across history and across our world’s diverse tapestry of human and geographical terrain. The Scientific Revolution, Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment were critical junctures in this historic ‘arc of moral progress’ we take for granted in the West. At the heart of this process lie several very important things that countless heroic Muslims – and women – are fighting for, with their voices and their activism, and often at the cost of their lives or their safety: freedom of conscience, free speech, outspoken ideas, reason, science, skepticism, and human compassion.

This has profound implications for the way ahead within many countries and communities comprising the ‘Islamic world’. It has implications in how we foster a collaborative partnership with its dissidents, writers, poets, liberal theologians, feminists, rights activists, and freethinkers within Islamic societies. At the tip of this spear are liberal Muslims, who fight for the heart and soul of their faith and identity, and bravely seek a version of Islam that is compatible with these values – and which decisively rejects the barbarism and intolerance of the political Islamists and fundamentalist theocrats.

Building a bridge of solidarity between veterans and oppressed groups. As a veteran, I see the yearning that many of my fellow veterans have to continue to serve, to stay engaged in meaningful ways and fight for things we believe in. Human rights, and women’s’ rights, are among the most fulfilling and meaningful things we can fight for, both here in our own country and abroad, beyond our borders. Building a bigger bridge of solidarity between veterans and oppressed groups – especially Muslim women and victims of hate crimes – is one of the most powerful and important things we can do. One such example is the recent solidarity between many of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and American Muslims. A pivotal moment in this involved American war veterans who came out to defend and reassure a Muslim girl who feared abuse, hate and deportation amidst our toxic political climate.

Another point is that we as veterans must start to speak out – and many of us are – against problematic and hurtful policies and actions by governments and leaders. We should always be the voice of reason in an increasingly dark, divided, fearful and tribal world. In recent months, I authored and published Letters to Trump, from a War Veteran. It strongly conveys why empowering Muslims, rather than marginalizing them, is good counter-extremism. In this letter, I wrote the following:

The intended purpose of this (so-called) ‘Open Letter’ — an admittedly silly and pretentious name in many cases, I do admit- is to make a strong case against the disturbingly common idea that Muslim immigration bans, Orwellian security measures, over-extended surveillance, homeland militarization, and an expanding police state, are good and effective ideas. In fact, they are among the worst strategies we can employ against terror here at home and in Europe. We need more and more veterans to speak out on this, alongside and in solidarity with freedom-loving Muslims across America, Europe, and beyond.

Conclusion, with a passage from my upcoming book1. There is a yearning for self- actualization, to set the human spirit free and aim for the stars. This an about an innate desire, defined by the very passion of self-discovery embodied within the DNA of our species, to rise beyond the low expectations of the day, and set sail into the star-lit skies of the untested oceans of freedom. “Per Aspera, Ad Astra!”من خلال المصاعب إلي النجوم!

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