Monday, June 27, 2011

Sharjah Post-Partum

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

The conference titled ‘Belief in Dialogue: Science, Culture, and Modernity’, that was organized in Sharjah by the British Council (BC) and the American University of Sharjah (AUS), in collaboration with the International Society for Science and Religion, ended this past Thursday. Judging from various feedbacks, it was a resounding success. Let me offer a few personal highlights, which are necessarily subjective, especially since, constantly running around to take care or supervise one thing or another, I had to miss a number of talks.
After months of preparation, we the organizers were almost there; the day before the opening, a press conference was held. Half a dozen or so reporters showed up to hear about the event and to ask questions to the panel, which included Paul Davies, William Grassie, Salman Hameed, and myself, in addition to officials representing AUS and BC. I was pleasantly surprised to see the reporters immediately dive into the issues, asking to what extent the topics were going to be controversial, whether that posed any risks, and whether the conference was going to address socio-political questions (funding of Science in the Arab-Muslim world, the Arabization of science education, the effect of the Arab Spring on the status and future of Science in the region, etc.). That gave everyone a taste of the discussions that were going to take place during the next three days.
The great thing was that almost everyone was able to come, including Prof. Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and a renowned historian of science, who gave the keynote address on the first day and with whom a few of us had the pleasure of holding very interesting long informal discussions afterwards. The one big exception was Tariq Ramadan who could not come but got his talk video-recorded and showed in the session he was scheduled to speak in (second day). Salman has given a brief account of the strong exchanges which occurred in that session: Zia Sardar provocatively criticized various people (without naming them), Aref Nayed took strong exception to Sardar’s opinions, etc. I should also point out that the session included William Grassie who gave a great talk on ‘Big History’ and the need to adopt it into our curricula, and Philip Clayton, who gave a poignant lecture on how consumerism, individualism, and the “latest-technology” trend are destroying tradition and religion(s), not Science.
In a way, the Sardar-Nayed clash resembled the famous exchange which took place 25 years ago between Sardar and S.H. Nasr, which now has taken a mythic status. For the record, I would like to add that upon the request of Ehsan Masood, I got Aref Nayed to come back the next day (he is based in Dubai and only attended a few sessions) and have a open chat with Zia Sardar; the two intellectuals immediately turned very friendly and mutually understanding toward one another, and after 30 minutes, they were inviting each other to future events (Dr. Nayed said he much prefers small-group meetings).
As divine providence would have it, that discussion ended just as I was supposed to head to the closing student seminar, and Zia and Aref kindly agreed to join me there, along with Bruno Guiderdoni and Philip Clayton, who were already scheduled to conduct the closing discussion with the students.
I should note that in addition to the scholarly conference, a student seminar was organized as part of the event. 25 students were carefully selected (on the basis of their academic credentials and backgrounds), so that half of them were from AUS and half were from the rest of the world (from India to Brazil, including Jordan, Morocco, and the UK); they attended all the plenary sessions, but instead of the parallel sessions, they attended a special program. Everyone who had discussions with the students (including Clayton, Sardar, Masood, and Patricia Fara) came away amazed by the students’ level of education and critical thinking abilities. The student seminar closing session was itself a model of rich discussions, and many participants have now written to us to thank us for the great opportunity.
Another highlight of the event was the BBC radio debate. Salman has also given a quick glimpse of some of the opinions expressed there, but you can judge for yourself, as the whole program can now be listened to here. The good thing about that radio program was that it extended the topics that were being discussed in the conference to: the rise and decline of Science in the Islamic civilization, the Arab Spring and its effects on Science in the region, the question of freedom(s) (of expression, of investigation, etc.), the relations between scientists and ulamas in today’s Muslim society(ies), and – looking forward – what is needed to “restart the engine” and take off…
Finally, I must note that there was a two-hour “media session” at the end: half a dozen media personalities (BBC, USA Today, Gulf News, etc.) joined academics to discuss “belief in dialogue” issues from a media point of view, how things are covered, what are the constraints, etc. Unfortunately, I could not attend that one, as I was at the student seminar closing session; I hope Salman can give us a brief review of what transpired there…
If this post has a bit of a nostalgic feel, it is because I am now experiencing a post-partum syndrome. For months I had been absorbed by this event, agonizing over various aspects of it, both content and logistics. It has now passed – so quickly – and I am only trying to assemble a coherent series of images, sounds, and thoughts. On to the next project…

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