Research And Religion Can Be A Difficult Mix
Among those honored are researchers in Japan, Italy and the Netherlands, a country with a population of just 16-million. Yet the list does not include a single noteworthy breakthrough in any of the world's 56 Muslim nations, encompassing more than 1-billion people.
Dr. Essam Heggy has a reason.
"We don't live in an environment where we value science," says Heggy, a Muslim astronomer who left his native Libya and is working in Houston on NASA's Mars exploration program. "Science and intellectual presence have been seen as a real threat to governments that have no serious plans for democratic rule."
Why the dearth of scientific achievement in the modern Muslim world? Like Heggy, many critics blame authoritarian regimes that stifle independent thinking and limit contacts with the outside world. Most schools and universities in Muslim countries emphasize rote learning over debate and analysis. Defense budgets -- especially in the bellicose Middle East -- consume billions of dollars that might otherwise go to research.
And just as Christian conservatism in America has led to curbs on genetic research and pressure to teach alternatives to evolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has turned many Muslims away from science and toward religion as a way to view and explain the world.
"Religious fundamentalism is always bad news for science," Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani Muslim physicist, recently wrote in an article on Islam and science for Physics Today.
"Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought."
While the reasons are many and often controversial, there is no doubt that the Muslim world lags far behind in scientific achievement and research:
* Muslim countries contribute less than 2 percent of the world's scientific literature. Spain alone produces almost as many scientific papers.
* In countries with substantial Muslim populations, the average number of scientists, engineers and technicians per 1,000 people is 8.5. The world average is 40.
* Muslim countries get so few patents that they don't even register on a bar graph comparison with other countries. Of the more than 3-million foreign inventions patented in the United States between 1977 and 2004, only 1,500 were developed in Muslim nations.
* In a survey by the Times of London, just two Muslim universities -- both in cosmopolitan Malaysia -- ranked among the top 200 universities worldwide.
Two Muslim scientists have won Nobel Prizes, but both did their groundbreaking work at Western institutions. Pakistan's Abdus Salam, who won the 1979 physics prize while in Britain, was barred from speaking at any university in his own country. Why? Salam belonged to what the Pakistani government had declared a heretical sect.
Vanguard of learning
Despite a popular myth, people in the Muslim world are not resistant to new technology. Even the poorest have cell phones, some with global positioning features that show the exact direction in which to pray to Mecca. Prayer rugs now contain computer chips that count the number of bend-downs. And as al-Qaida's frequent messages show, the Internet has been a valuable tool in spreading threats against the West.
But it is a far cry from Islam's early days when the prophet Mohammed said "the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of martyrs."
As Islam spread from its birthplace on the Arabian Peninsula, Muslim scientists expanded on the knowledge gained from the Romans, Greeks and other cultures. The Golden Age of Islam, spanning the 8th through 13th centuries, saw major advances in mathematics, optics, chemistry, astronomy and medicine while Europe slept through centuries of intellectual darkness.
Over time, though, tensions grew between liberal Muslims, who had a flexible interpretation of Islam, and fundamentalists, who believed in predestination with all its chilling implications for learning and discovery. As reason bowed to faith, "science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed," Hoodbhoy writes. "No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now."
Today, many of the brightest scientific minds leave their countries to study in Western universities like Virginia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have sizeable Muslim student associations. By some estimates, more than half of the science students from Arab countries never return home to work.
"Science has now been replaced by religious thinking," says Heggy, 32, the NASA researcher who got his doctorate in France. "Logic unfortunately is a smaller and smaller part of society."
Muslim scientists who do work in their native countries often find themselves embracing -- publicly at least -- so-called "Islamic science." Popularized in the '80s as an alternative to Western science and its perceived lack of moral values, the Islamic version tries to mesh religion and science with curious results.
"Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinn spirits," Hoodbhoy writes. "None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment or even formulated a single testable hypothesis."
Instead, fundamentalists typically view science only of value in giving more proof of God or showing the truth of the Koran. One oft-visited Internet site reveals this "astounding scientific fact" -- the Koran anticipated black holes and genes.
While critical of fellow Muslims, Hoodbhoy thinks the United States is partly to blame for the dismal record of scientific achievement. Western support for unpopular secular governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries has fueled a rise in fundamentalism that in turn discourages academic and cultural freedom.
At Hoodbhoy's own university in Islamabad, Pakistan, almost all female students now wear veils and have become "silent note-takers" who are increasingly timid and afraid to ask questions, he says. Movies, dramas and music are shunned as un-Islamic. The campus has three mosques, but no bookstore.
The picture is not entirely bleak. Saudi Arabia, though home to one of the most intolerant strains of Islam, is building a world-class research university in collaboration with Cape Cod's prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Turkey -- whose founder, Kemal Ataturk, wanted to Westernize his country -- has more than tripled its science funding since 2003 while under a religiously conservative prime minister. Tunisia, another secular Muslim nation, has largely rejected "Islamic science" in favor of practical research. The number of laboratories there grew to 139 from 55 in six years.
But far more needs to be done, says Hoodbhoy, who argues that arrested scientific development in the Muslim world is contributing to the "marginalization" of Muslims and their growing sense of injustice and victimhood. Muslim countries will continue to stagnate scientifically -- and in other ways as well.
"The struggle to usher in science," Hoodbhoy writes, "will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy and pluralism." (By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, St. Petersburg Times)
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Labels: Religion. Science