Monday, September 05, 2011

Arab Scientist Assesses Arab Spring Prospects


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.
Nature, the premiere journal of science, devotes a weekly page for an op-ed column titled World View, in which a scientist from around the world offers his/her take on an issue of relevance to science. The pieces, roughly 900 words long, are personal viewpoints inviting further discussion and comment.
In the latest issue of Nature, Rana Dajani, assistant professor of molecular biology at the Hashemite University in Zarqa, Jordan, has a piece titled ‘The Arab Spring offers hope but no quick fix’. In it, she assesses the prospects of the Arab Spring (including the Libyan rebels’ victory) on science. She finds hope in the recent developments but cautions that “progress will be slow.”
While the article is short and can easily be read by anyone (access being open for these op-eds), I will here quote a few excerpts and offer some commentary.
Dr. Dajani writes:
Science is not a high priority for countries that have just rid themselves of dictators, but in the wake of the uprisings and protests it is natural for researchers in those nations and colleagues abroad to see opportunities to improve the generally abysmal state of science in Arab countries.
Significant change is unlikely soon. Six months on from the first events of the Arab Spring, there have been no concrete improvements for scientists here in Jordan, and I get the same impression from colleagues in Egypt and Tunisia. The kind of change needed to improve the state of science takes a long time. It is about rebuilding institutions, providing the right environment, obliterating former habits, dismantling bureaucracies, changing mentalities and re-educating people. Such change will take a generation.
 Although the outside world may see headlines about fancy projects such as the building of new institutions, the change to science required in Arab countries is not about bricks-and-mortar improvement but about building intellectual capacity.
I concur with all of the above. I would have taken a few sentences to really describe the state of science and its teaching in the Arab world to show where exactly the problem lies, but there is nothing untrue in what’s stated above. I also agree that “fancy projects” (I think she is referring to the big Ahmed Zewail project presently under consideration in Egypt) are not going to change the practice of science in the Arab world.
In the second part of her article, Dr. Dajani highlights the projects that she has recently been involved in, projects that she believes are the kinds of essential undertakings that will galvanize science in the Arab world.
I strongly believe that an essential first step towards freeing minds from the habits of the past is to plant the love of reading in our young children. In this way, they revisit other people's experiences across time and space, learn that there are other ways of living, and develop respect for other perspectives. When children read, their horizons expand and they build the confidence to face challenges, create solutions and think without hindrance. I have developed a programme called We Love Reading (http://www.welovereading.org) that aims to foster a love of reading among children in the Arab world by training women to read aloud to children in their local neighbourhoods.
While I can only applaud this kind of initiative and hope to see it spread elsewhere, I would think there are other, perhaps more important, developments that are worthy of highlight, or at least mention, such as the appearance of NSF-style research funding agencies in the region, the recent emergence of Arab science journalism (with the recent holding of the three-day World Conference of Science Journalists in Qatar last June), the increase (in some cases doubling) of several countries’ spending on science and research in recent years, etc.
Finally, Dr. Dajani turns to the relation between Islam and science and its effect on the hoped-for development of a robust scientific culture in the Arab world. Here too she focuses on her own experience:
… we also need to assess carefully the relationship between Islam and science, particularly in fields with an ethical content, such as stem-cell research. Ethical guidelines for bioengineering and biomedical science for the Muslim world must be drawn up by committees that include scientists, physicians, Islamic scholars and Arabic language specialists.
We have established such a committee at my university, and our discussions indicate that stem-cell research is permissible in Islam, as long as it is carried out with the purpose of improving human health. This conclusion must be re-examined as the field advances.
Such a multidisciplinary approach, new to the Islamic world, is essential to challenge stagnant thinking based on literal interpretations of Islamic sources. The Koran is not a book of scientific facts. It contains verses that describe worldly phenomena, but these are presented as evidence of the elegance and simplicity of creation. Islam is a spiritual guide to life. It teaches us how to live in harmony with ourselves, our fellow humans and the world. There is no conflict between Islam and science.
Islam asks us to use our minds to explore the world around us. It calls for the use of scientific methodology and logic in our approach to science. The verses of the Koran are interpreted by humans, and humans are limited by the scientific knowledge of the era in which the verse was interpreted. The path ahead is not easy, and change will not happen overnight. Still, the Prophet Muhammad said: "Do not belittle any act of good."
Honestly, I don’t think many Arabs or Muslims are worrying much about stem-cell research and its relation to Islam. On the other hand, the theory of evolution (and I know Dr. Dajani is a strong proponent of the theory, its teaching, and its compatibility with Islam) is a serious problem (theological, pedagogical, etc.), but it surprisingly didn’t get mentioned here. To a lesser degree, but still much more relevant than stem-cell research, the problem of the determination of Islamic months should be a case in point of the relation between Science and Islam and the role of each in addressing societal issues. (Less than a week ago, we went through a debacle when officials in at least Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria accepted testimonies of sighting of the crescent when the latter was either not in the sky at all or set too shortly after the sun to have a remote chance of being seen. The shock wave of that decision is still being felt.)
Rana Dajani is a new voice on the Islam-Science scene. She has been highlighted in at least two recent long articles on the subject (here and here). She has not yet written much for her views to be discussed in earnest, but I have no doubt that we will be hearing from and about her more in the future. I personally warmly welcome all such articulate voices, especially those who represent a moderate viewpoint.

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