Monday, October 24, 2011

18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences

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.
I am currently in Doha, Qatar, taking part in the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS), from October 22 to 24, and it is to be followed by the 9th Doha Interfaith Conference, from 24 to 26 October 2011. The first conference addresses the theme: “The Islamic World and the West: Rebuilding bridges through science and technology”; the second will discuss: “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue: A new relationship”.
Each of these two conference promises to bring highly interesting talks and speakers. Indeed, as I write, the first day of the IAS conference has passed, and we have already been treated to a series of rich and by no means straightforward addresses; unfortunately, no Q & A sessions or discussions took place after any of the talks; perhaps it was because time was so tight, and speakers used the whole time of each session.
I will have at least 2 or 3 posts related to these two conferences, addressing either general themes or specific talks, depending on interest from the readers of the blog.
Let me begin with the highlights of the first day. In the morning, there was an opening ceremony where, in addition to the welcoming speeches, two short talks were given: one by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, and one by Prince El-Hassan Ibn Talal, former crown-prince of Jordan and a founding patron of IAS.
This was followed by the first session with a more formal keynote speech by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, titled “The Islamic World and the West: Towards a Common Understanding through Development”; a talk by Prof. Farouk El-Baz, Director of the center for remote sensing at Boston University, titled “Big Ideas Based on Science for Fast-Track Development: Emphasis on the Case of Egypt”; and a talk by Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman, the former head of various federal ministries and commissions of Pakistan and Coordinator General of COMSTECH, titled “Building Bridges with the West through Knowledge Economy.”
Briefly (and I’ll be happy to give more details if there’s serious interest in any of the above), Dr. Mahathir emphasized the need for the Islamic world today to adopt a learning attitude from the west, as the latter diligently learned from the Islamic world during its golden age. He called for massively adopting science and mathematics as cores of the educational curricula as well as making every student master at least one European language, especially “the language of knowledge” (English). He also asked that this be done in cooperation with the west, first by us showing that we fully respect intellectual property – a serious issue in this part of the world. Mahathir also addressed the current worldwide crises (of governance, economy, and finance), pointing out that rebellions are now occurring everywhere, from Wall Street to Tokyo, including of course the Arab Spring. Equally as significant, what he described as the moral failure of the west, which is evidenced by its inability to regulate gains (rampant greed) and its disregard for the need of the people. He saw in this an opportunity for the west and the Islamic world to learn from each other: the west can really benefit from the Islamic principles of economy and finance (the status of money in the Islamic philosophy, the principles of investments, risks, and gains, etc.), while the Muslim world can learn a lot from the more rigorous methods of management and administration in the (sound) functioning of most companies and institutions.
Prof. El-Baz presented a project he is proposing for Egypt, which consists in building a North-South corridor parallel to the Nile, to draw the population away from the river and its fertile lands, as the continuous and large increase in the country’s population (to increase by 60 million over the next 40 years) is eating up the agricultural lands with building, factories, and roads. It’s an ambitious transformative project; he showed that a similar large-triangle project of highways was built by India, largely helping its development with the transportation of goods, and a similar, though much smaller one was proposed for the West Bank in Palestine. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian project will be adopted and implemented.
Last but not least, Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman gave a stunning presentation, essentially highlighting his achievements over the past decade as the minister of education and advisor to the prime minister for science and technology. He also in passing referred to the awards he has received from prestigious institutions around the world, including the Royal Society and the State of Austria (highest medal) for those achievements. The biographical note in the program also referred to his scientific achievements (798 publications in organic chemistry, 15 patents, 99 books, 59 chapters in books, etc.).
Most importantly, he showed some impressive numbers: salaries of Pakistan university professors now (at over $5,000 a month) being five times higher than those of federal ministers; linkage between Pakistani universities and top western institutions increases (by factors of around 50), helping seven Pakistani universities climb to the top-500 list (of the Times); initiating a $1 billion program to train 11,000 bright students at top laboratories in the west, including 5,000 students at the PhD level, etc.
The afternoon session was devoted to the history of Islamic science and was no less interesting, with the following talks: “Muslim Contribution and the Turning Points in the History of Classical Mathematics” by Prof. Roshdi Rashed, Emeritus Research Director, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Center for History of Arabic and Medieval Sciences and Philosophy, University of Paris, France; “Discoveries in the Islamic World” by Prof. Ahmed Djebbar, Professor Emeritus, University of Science and Technology, Lille, France; “Unravelling the Mystery of the Decline of Islamic Science: Key Projections on Today’s World” by Prof. George Saliba, Columbia University, USA; and “Ibn al-Haytham’s Contributions to European Civilization” by Prof. Charles Falco, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA.
I will report on this session in my next post.


Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Good post Nidhal. I agree with Dr Mahatir Mohammad, that we need to learn a lot from the west while showing respect for intellectual proprety.

As for talk by Dr Ata Ur Rehman, on the whole the increase in education budget had mostly positive effects but there were quite a few problems when you go in details. Read some of Dr Hoodbhoy's articles on this. Moreover I would like to see the development of scientific thinking at grass root level. Perhaps it will take sometime. But I believe thats what we need to most. Respect and pursuit for scintific reasoning and thinking.


Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Ali, for your comments.
I am not familiar with the critiques made by Dr. Hoodbhoy on the work done by Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman when he was in charge of higher education and research. That would certainly be important to familiarize oneself with, considering Dr. Hoodbhoy's long experience with research and university systems in Pakistan.
On the other hand, the results reported by Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman are, in themselves, quite impressive and represent a definite quantum leap for Pakistani universities.
Still, as you say, other factors and issues need to be taken into account, but those could only be brought to the fore by our Pakistani friends.

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