18 August 2007

In space, no one can point toward Mecca...

I ran across two recent articles on Islam and science that I'll share today. The first is a interview with Taner Edis, Turkish-American physicist, on the current interaction of Islam and science. He draws special attention to the oft-cited observation that the Muslim world was once a leader in the arts and sciences (think al-gebra and al-gorithm as two examples) in his recent book An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.

The second is an article in Physics Today by Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, with actual data on scientific progress in the Muslim world.

(Note the audacity of physicists. They feel perfectly comfortable commenting on religion, history, and social sciences, even to the point of writing articles and books well outside their fields. Makes a fellow geek proud.)

TE and PAH both recognize the fundamental contradiction, not limited to the Muslim world, between the desire for the use and conveniences of state-of-the-art technology, and the lack of institutional support - educational, cultural, or even legal - of the domestic development of those technologies. "Pakistan," says PAH, "has produced only eight patents in the past 43 years."

Particularly tragic is the effect the Islamic scientific legacy of the Dark Ages has on today's Muslim culture. The net effect, says TE, is a rearward-looking posture, even in scientific research. (Fellow Southerners will recognize echoes of this in the obsession with the War of Northern Aggression.) On medieval Islamic science, TE continues:

They did some very interesting things in medicine and optics. But all of this was mixed in with astrology and alchemy and what today we would consider dead ends. This was not thinking of nature mechanistically, as happened in the scientific revolution in Europe, but in almost an occult sense.
As opposed to Europe, where
[y]ou had a three-way interplay between science, orthodox religion and more occult religious alternatives. You could have interesting alliances. These end up being separated through historical accident -- I don't see anything special about Western Christianity that sets it apart from Islam -- and they go their separate ways. This type of separation never really happened in the Muslim Middle East.

In the Western world, the institution of law achieved a kind of autonomy from religion early on. Some historians argue that this was really a precursor to science achieving autonomy as well. In the Muslim world, law was never entirely disentangled from religion. Islamic culture has not been as supportive of intellectual independence for different areas of life.

This I find very intriguing. What we see in the U.S. is a swaying back from, perhaps a hiccup in, the growth of autonomy of law from religion. But that's where the similarity ends, right? Nope, says TE:

In the last 20 years, we've seen creationism appearing in Turkey's official science textbooks that are taught in high schools.


The Turkish creationists have taken the initiative and gotten in touch with organizations like the Institute for Creation Research in California. And what they've taken from American creationists are basically ideas and strategies for how to get creationism into textbooks. So Islamic creationism is an indigenous movement which is inspired by some aspects of Western creationism.

Am I the only one that finds that creepy?

But what does the current data say? First, for the inputs to science, PAH cites funding patterns:

Muslim leaders today, realizing that military power and economic growth flow from technology, frequently call for speedy scientific development and a knowledge-based society. Often that call is rhetorical, but in some Muslim countries—Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Nigeria among others—official patronage and funding for science and education have grown sharply in recent years. Enlightened individual rulers, including Sultan ibn Muhammad Al-Qasimi of Sharjah, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, and others have put aside some of their vast personal wealth for such causes. No Muslim leader has publicly called for separating science from religion.

But we can be a bit more precise. In outputs, specifically peer-reviewed publications, the situation is dire:

Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US NSF records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the [57 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference].

Also the institutional independence of universities has a way to go:

Academic and cultural freedoms on campuses are highly restricted in most Muslim countries. At Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, where I teach, the constraints are similar to those existing in most other Pakistani public-sector institutions. This university serves the typical middle-class Pakistani student and [...] ranks number two among OIC universities. Here, as in other Pakistani public universities, films, drama, and music are frowned on, and sometimes even physical attacks by student vigilantes who believe that such pursuits violate Islamic norms take place. The campus has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore.
There are other anecdotal effects of this pressure:
[O]ver time most students—particularly veiled females—have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers, are increasingly timid, and are less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions. This lack of self-expression and confidence leads to most Pakistani university students, including those in their mid- or late-twenties, referring to themselves as boys and girls rather than as men and women.

However, I was surprised by the remaining role of women enrollments. According to PAH:

[I]t is a myth that women in Muslim countries are largely excluded from higher education. In fact, the numbers are similar to those in many Western countries: The percentage of women in the university student body is 35% in Egypt, 67% in Kuwait, 27% in Saudi Arabia, and 41% in Pakistan, for just a few examples. In the physical sciences and engineering, the proportion of women enrolled is roughly similar to that in the US.

So where do we go from here? Both TE and PAH stress that the rearward-looking cultural posture must change. But so, too, must simple preconceptions of ethnic homogeneity and inferiority. PAH reminds us,

Academics such as Henry Herbert Goddard, the well-known eugenicist, described Jews in 1913 as "a hopelessly backward people, largely incapable of adjusting to the new demands of advanced capitalist societies." His research found that 83% of Jews were "morons"—a term he popularized to describe the feeble-minded—and he went on to suggest that they should be used for tasks requiring an "immense amount of drudgery." That ludicrous bigotry warrants no further discussion, beyond noting that the powerful have always created false images of the weak.
PAH went on to point out the unavoidable conflicts between modern, corporate work-patterns and the daily rituals required of observant Muslims (5 prayers per day and a month of fasts, particularly).

Unfortunately, I found that both TE and PAH have relatively little to say about the path forward for the Muslim world. These pieces are more thought-generating than prescriptive. Personally, I agree with the concept that scientists themselves can make the very best of diplomats. The US, especially the State Department, can address this in a big way.

I suppose they're a bit distracted these days.

If you have thoughts about how to go forward, feel free to leave a comment.
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