During a TED Talk, Dr Munjed Al Muderis recounts the time he questioned his father about the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son to test his faith. What kind of God makes such a request, Al Muderis senior, a former Iraqi supreme judge, told his son. “Remember Munjed,” he added, “to always question everything.” It was advice that proved prescient.
By 1999 Munjed Al Muderis was a young surgeon at a Baghdad hospital when a gang of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen arrived with a group of deserters and ordered the medical team to cut off their ears. The head of the department refused and was taken outside and shot. Dr Al Muderis managed to slip into the women’s toilets where he hid for hours before making his escape. Eventually the young doctor arrived in Australia where he spent 10 months in a detention centre he describes as “hell on Earth” where he was “stripped of my human identity”.
“It’s sad, but we can talk about the Australian immigration until the cows come home,” says Dr Al Muderis. “The current solution is ineffective, inhumane and costly.” Though the surgeon understands the government wants to protect its citizens, he adds that the current offshore program is “the worst kind of solution implemented by ill-educated and ill-advised politicians trying to prove a point”.
Because the medic was fluent in English, he took on a leadership role within the centre, standing up for its more vulnerable residents. It made Al Muderis a marked man with the authorities, quite literally, for they wrote a number on his shoulder and eventually locked him in solitary confinement.
“The current system is just not sustainable,” continues Al Muderis. “We have people such as Trump leading the world with his nonsensical ideas and people easily forget what happened in the past. Ideologies, nationalism and xenophobia lead to destruction and genocide. I just hope the days of the 1930s will never be repeated.”
Upon his release from the centre, the orthopaedic surgeon sent out scores of resumes without success. Now, he’s revered as one of the world’s most eminent medical minds, pioneering a revolutionary technology inspired by the Terminator movies that sees robotic limbs attached to the bones of amputees, controlled via their muscles and nerves. Reading up on the surgeon, the word ‘maverick’ gets used a lot. I ask him if he’s always looked to do things differently.
“As a kid I was always interested in innovation,” says Al Muderis over the phone from Sydney. “I was always making and building things which would sometimes get me in to trouble. Once my cousin and I created our own radio station—we managed to broadcast for a few minutes before the police came looking for us!”
Your prosthetics are so complex, did you study engineering?
“It’s all self-taught. I wanted to do mechanical engineering but my marks were much higher so I went for medicine. I’ve always had a passion for engineering and am generally pretty nerdy about it.I read up a lot and mostly watch documentaries rather than movies. Because I have an engineering mind I can speak the language which helps a lot with the design process.”
There was resistance by some health professionals who questioned the ethics of affixing robotic parts to human beings, but the doctor says that the practice is now widely accepted in the medical community and even some governments are sending their clinicians to study his technology. Prince Harry invited Al Muderis to the UK and he has now performed more than 50 surgeries there, mainly on soldiers.
“I have been back to Iraq four times to conduct tens of operations,” reveals Al Muderis. “The number of casualties and the severity of the injuries there are on a different scale. It’s beyond comprehension. It has been a very rewarding experience being able to give people their ability back, but at the same time it is far from safe. Iraq is a very challenging environment, and added to that are the challenges with the government and politics surrounding it. The country is run by different factions all with their own interests.”
Are you hopeful for the future of Iraq?
“Iraq is a mess. People who have lived under autocratic rule for decades don’t understand the principles of democracy. Now the moderate, sensible section of society has largely disappeared and the country is being run by lunatics. However, there is a lot of goodness among the people and they are trying to rebuild. That’s why I keep going back. I cannot give up on it.”
In 2014, Dr Al Muderis published his memoir, Walking Free. I ask if recounting his story was a painful process, but he says that he doesn’t do anything that is painful, and, whether it be cleaning toilets of performing cutting edge orthopaedic surgery, he enjoys everything that he does. He is currently polishing off a second tome. “We all have a duty to society,” he tells me, “and it is my duty to document the things that I have experienced. I believe that they are worth noting and if the public discovers anything of benefit then I have achieved something.”
Do you believe you would still have reached such professional heights had you remained in Iraq?
“If I’d remained in Iraq I would be dead. That’s the very honest answer. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my mouth shut. Since I’ve been back I’ve already ruffled a lot of feathers because I have to speak my mind which doesn’t go down well with dictators.”
Is Iraq still home in your heart or do you consider yourself an Aussie now?
“What makes a home ‘home’ is the people. The people that I knew in Iraq are no longer there. I lived in a secular Iraq that was populated by educated people, logical people who accepted others. Now, it is run and populated by radicals and religious fanatics who I can’t tolerate. It is against my principles. What I passionately believe is that we are all equal should accept each other.”
Though raised Muslim, the surgeon now describes himself as agnostic. I wonder if there was a specific moment that altered his beliefs or if he gradually drifted from faith. He says that he also attended a Jesuit school and studied Christianity. He has read the Torah and is interested in the philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. “What I really despise is when certain faiths claim theirs to be the chosen one,” Dr Munjed Al Muderis continues. “We should live in harmony. If I have a place in heaven then so be it, and if I have a place in hell then so be it also. Whatever comes after can be dealt with then. What is important is that we spend our time doing good, not justifying harming others in the name of God.”