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A New Era for Islamic Science?

H T GoransonH T Goranson is the Lead Scientist of Sirius-Beta Corp and was a Senior Scientist with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. His previous piece on Webdiary was Spying on Eros.

by H T Goranson

For a few hundred years, when science and mathematics were enjoying a period of great invention, one region of the world stood out. Masters of these disciplines were revered there, medicine advanced quickly, and the average person was curious about how nature worked. Not surprisingly, this region was globally respected.

In the other half of the known planet, scientists were punished, even killed. Mathematics was outlawed as irreligious and alien, and was later made subservient to religion. The standard of living was low.

The prosperous region was the Islamic Middle East, while an ignorant Europe remained poor. Both regions were religiously governed (historians differ about the role and natures of the religions in this context), but science flourished only in one of them. Now, of course the roles of the Islamic Middle East and the West are reversed.

Since World War II, the United States has been the world’s undisputed leader in science. Throughout this period, the brightest students were drawn away from their native lands, attracted by superior research universities and opportunities. Until recently, more than half of all mathematics, science, and engineering graduate students in the US were foreign-born. Many of these talents stayed after graduation, and both industry and government took advantage of this.

Meanwhile, Islamic cultures entered a historical phase in which science was equated with Western influence and eschewed. Even in countries where oil revenues could fuel a significant amount of research, Arab rulers did not encourage such investment, with the result that their societies have not prospered as much as they might have.

Recently, a desire for greater political respect has spurred Islamic nations to invest in technology, which is most visible in Pakistani and Iranian nuclear ambitions. But while such weapons carry political weight, the science behind them is mundane and old.

More meaningful is the respect that comes from incubating insights, rather than the products of past discoveries. Imagine the influence that would be generated by a Pakistani institute that was the world leader in cancer research. Would the political rhetoric shift if researchers in Oman discovered a key to suppressing AIDS?

This is one unclaimed opportunity. But another exists, and not just for Islamic societies. The US has made profound missteps recently. "Matters of faith" have been substituted for science across government, from the president down. Top researchers have had their reports changed by political operatives when the facts contradicted official belief. Encouraged by a religiously influenced administration, school systems are shifting their focus from science to "values."

Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, entry visas are fewer and more difficult to obtain, stanching the flow of young talent into US universities. Major scientific organizations have protested, without result. At the same time, tax laws have been revised to make investors wealthier in the near term, discouraging long-term investment in research. Half a trillion dollars was committed to the war in Iraq, an amount roughly equal to the sponsorship of all basic research for the last thousand years. Even if the US avoids a fundamentalist dark age, it clearly risks losing its global research dominance.

Japan recognized the link between political clout and science in the 1980’s. Japan’s chief industrialist, Akio Morita, the chairman of Sony, and the right-wing politician Shintaro Ishihara gave a series of speeches that were collected and published in 1986 as a book called The Japan that Can Say No. They outlined a national strategy in which world influence was understood to flow from scientific leadership. The key idea was that military power could be made obsolete if the "food chain" of military technologies was controlled by other nations. The book’s title refers to Japan’s plan to "say no" to US military influence once Japan controlled key military technologies.

Building a knowledge-based economy using oil wealth is clearly possible. For example, Texas, like most southern US states, was once economically poor and declining. Although it had oil revenue, the flow of dollars into an economy, by itself, does not boost prosperity as much as one might think. So Texas decided to devote its oil money to an educational endowment.

Today, that endowment is roughly equal to that of Harvard University and spread over 15 universities. The effect has been staggering: aerospace manufacturing has almost disappeared from California, but is booming in Texas. Telecom research centers and consortia have flocked to Texas, even from the Canadian telecommunications giant Nortel. Although manufacturing in the US is in crisis, Texas has one of the strongest manufacturing economies in the world.

There is no reason that the same outcome could not be achieved in the Middle East. First, however, the Islamic world must rediscover and embrace its proud heritage.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.


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Mosquee de Paris

For some reason my conscience forbids me from refraining to record a few observations about Muslims in Paris - there are scarcely any here. The few that are out around the streets are impeccably dressed like all Parisians. I find that I am all the more mystified at why, in a place of such splendour, anyone would care whether or not Muslim schoolgirls are wearing Hijab or not. It is easy to be seduced (occassionally literally, if you must know) away from ones journalistic ethics and to simply get lost in a surfeit of beauty.

Today I went to the Mosquee De Paris in the South of Paris. It was beautiful, as expected, but mostly full of men - some seemed to be "cheiks" as they were elaborately dressed. There seem to be a few more Islamicised Africans around Jaures, by the Canal Saint Martin, where I am staying, but not many from the Middle-East. This makes sense as France is close to Africa and there is about a 50:50 ratio of blacks to whites in most parts of Paris. There is apparently a large cluster of Middle-Eastern people down the South Coast, near Marseilles, however I am uncertain whether I will make it down that far.

Au 'voir.

This really is a good article

This is one unclaimed opportunity. But another exists, and not just for Islamic societies. The US has made profound missteps recently. "Matters of faith" have been substituted for science across government, from the president down. Top researchers have had their reports changed by political operatives when the facts contradicted official belief. Encouraged by a religiously influenced administration, school systems are shifting their focus from science to "values."

Unfortunately this is true to an extent. I would have thought a natural wedge for democrats would have been between the more fundi elements and capitalist GOP. They never took advantage of this.

Unfortunately their equally fundi cure of affirmative action and the like is just as bankrupt. And will eventually lead in the same direction.

Whilst I am fairly conservative in which direction a society should head. I am a pragmatist and respect "true" capitalism is the greatest system that mankind has so far come to know. For this reason I believe Rudy Giuliani should be the next President. He brings with him moderate elements from both schools of thought.

That the more fundamentalist elements of the GOP are so negative towards him I find troubling. They have had their go with Bush and now it is time for someone else. Looking for and fronting with a Bush carbon copy is doomed to failure.

I would hope they (when the time is right) get on the Rudy train (a extremely realistic chance of winning big). If only because the eventual alternative is to bad to even bare thinking about. Rudy also offers very real ways forward.

Science: Arab vs. Israeli

Arabs vs Israel

By Farrukh Saleem

Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb: "If God were to humiliate a human being He would deny him knowledge"

Read it and think. 

The answer is blowing in the wind

Who really knows if this is the start of anything in this region.

I do know that on the present course they will not be winning anything soon. The course has never been successful and never will be successful. It was failed even before the beginnning. Failure unfortunately has the nasty habit of attracting more failure.

We often hear about the "Jewish lobby".  putting aside the rights and wrongs about this subject for the moment. I have taken the "lobby" thing to mean "money" and hence "society influence". Now what exactly is stopping the Muslim world gaining these same things?

Why cannot a Muslims own or be a part of a world sized media company, bank, stockbroking firm, advertising agency, shopping multinational, PR firm etc and have their own effective "lobby group"?

Withholding knowledge is to withhold empowerment. The christian churches and the ruling elites did this for thousands of years to their advantage. Only with the industrial revolution was this lock finally broken in the "western world".  We are now seeing the same thing happen in the East. But what about the Middle East?

The blame placed on Israel and the US is the greatest diversion tactic of them all. The reason I often say the Muslim Middle East needs Israel more then even Israel needs Israel. Hows that for Rumsfeld speak?

So many think by getting on here or other places taking part in this blame game is helping the "Muslim underdog". When the truth is, it is only playing into something that is hurting the real underdog "averge Arab man and women) more.

Whether or not this region will make a change I cannot say. The choice though finally rests with them. It always has.

knowledge is freedom

Will: "This is the population bomb [....etc]".

I would add Qatar to this list.

And you are quiet right about the wealthy Muslim elite going to the Etons and Harvards of the world. The problem is many of these people are not bringing this knowledge home to be shared. Frankly in many cases it is being used for purely selfish reasons.

Beginnings of an Islamic Reformation?

Will Howard, having seen firsthand the desperate situation faced by the youth of contemporary Iran, I can only agree. However, I would draw everyone’s attention to the following:

In Democratiya Book Review (6 September - November 2006) there is a review by Anja Havedal of Tunisian scholar Mohamed Charfi’s book Islam and Liberty: The Historical Misunderstanding (2005)

Havedal begins with this observation:

"Since 1974, the absolute number of democracies in the world has almost tripled. Only in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa did this 'third wave of democracy' have little impact; these countries still include not one liberal democracy and have the world's lowest average levels of freedom.

"Not coincidentally, the 22 member countries of the Arab League—with a total population of 300 million, a land area larger than all of Europe, and plentiful oil and natural resources—today have a GDP lower than that of Belgium plus Holland, produce fewer scientific publications than Israel alone, and translate fewer books than Greece. Throughout most of the region, poverty and human rights abuses are common.

"How did the Muslim lands, which a millennium ago were home to one of the most advanced cultures in the world, fall so far behind in their cultural, economic, and political development? How did their peaceful religion spawn a fundamentalism so extreme that it today is the main threat to international peace and stability? And, perhaps most importantly, how can this tide be turned?"


Havedal then adds this pertinent observation: “In Charfi's view, the fundamentalism, autocracy, and developmental lag we see in the Muslim world today are all closely related: they are the results of a historical evolution by which Islam has strayed far from its original spiritual message of peace and equality.”

Whether or not Charfi is right on the last point is to my mind less important than the fact that he thinks he is, and is making that claim. Broadly speaking, he is doing much the same thing as Martin Luther did in nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther’s theses had the purpose of showing how contemporary church practice (such as the selling of tickets to Heaven) had no basis in scripture, and was contrary to it in many ways.

Interestingly, the light of reason that Luther turned on the church was first lit by the Greeks, almost extinguished between 450 and 900 AD, in the ‘dark ages’, and would have disappeared but for the diligence of Irish monks and Islamic scholars in preserving and copying the classical texts. The revival of learning and the development of experimental science inevitably brought scholarship into conflict with religious dogma. Enlightenment figures persecuted by the Church include the philosopher Giordano Bruno and the physicist Galileo Galilei; the one murdered and the other subjected to imprisonment for both the thought processes they used and the conclusions they came to, in the days when that church enjoyed somewhat greater temporal power than it does today. Less prominent in the history of ideas are the legions of people (perhaps up to 10 million) charged under the rubric of ‘witchcraft’, and who perished at the hands of the European clergy in the Middle Ages.

No religion can insulate itself against reformation, because practice at whatever stage of its evolution can always be scrutinized in terms of conformity or otherwise to the ideals as set out in the religion’s holy texts, and the practice of its founder/s and saints. The priesthood of the Catholic Church for this reason forbade the laity to read the Bible, until the printeries of Gutenburg and others found their markets.

But at the same time one product of Luther’s reformation is arguably modern skepticism, agnosticism and atheism, where numbers of people have used the schoolmen’s legacy of reason to find satisfying lives independent of religious belief or affiliation.

The lives of the bulk of people in the Middle East have been improved only little by oil revenues. It is now a race between education and liberalism on the on hand, and diminishing oil reserves on the other. Marauding bands of militant fundamentalists organised as militias are the modern counterparts of the Vikings, Visigoths and Huns who terrorised the countryside, towns and monasteries of Europe in the Middle Ages, and developed the art of the protection racket as they killed off science and philosophy.

On the face of it, I would say that people like Mohamed Charfi are the best hope for the future of the Middle East.

And no-one's stopping them -

 - but themselves.

But - the scientific and technological progress Goranson is talking about is usually accompanied by political, social, and intellectual freedom. The challenge for authoritarian regimes like the Saudi royal family is how to allow their people this freedom. The more they repress their own people the further behind they are left by the US, Europe, Asian countries like South Korea, and of course, Israel. The more they repress their people, the more those people become easy ideological prey for Islamists like bin Laden.

If Arab nations are so concerned about "dignity" and "justice" then they need to start thinking about the indignity and injustice of allowing a whole generation of young people to grow up with such stunted educational and professional opportunities. Most of the societies of the Arab League are "bottom-heavy" demographically. They have a huge cohort of undereducated young people with little opportunity to do much but be supported by their regimes' oil money. (While of course the royal families' kids go to Eton and Harvard). This is the population bomb Arab governments are sitting on, and the bin Ladens of this world are more than happy to light the fuse. Some of them - UAE, for example - have recognised this and have started using their oil wealth to reshape their economies. Partly because they realise the oil will run out someday, and partly because they realise the oil is not enough. (Jordan's another example).

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