Sunday, May 06, 2012

Problems with Nature editorial on Bilbliotheca Alexandrina

by Salman Hameed

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a fantastic library in Alexandria. I had a chance to visit the library as part of a conference a few years ago (see an earlier posts here). Now it seems that the Director of the library, Ismail Serageldin, is facing heat because of his close ties to the Mubarak regime. I have heard Serageldin talk before, and he seems like a reasonable and progressive guy. I don't know the politics behind the pressure to remove him nor do I know the nature of his ties to the previous government. But an editorial in last week's issue of Nature argues that he should be allowed to serve his time as the Director until 2015. It commends for his prior work and sees a lot of positives if he stays on for a few more years.

This sounds quite reasonable and I actually happen to agree with it. However, then the editorial wades into two troublesome areas. While talking about the upcoming Egyptian elections, the editorial writes:
Serageldin retains the support of the library's 26-strong board of international trustees. In practice, however, a decision on his future will be made by Islamist MPs, who dominate the parliament, and by whoever wins the presidency in June. But they should remember that Serageldin's predicament has many parallels in Islamic history.
Why bring the term "Islamist" into the mix? Does Nature know the views of "non-Islamist" MPs? Why not just say that the new parliament will be making the decision regarding the Directorship of Bibliotheca, and leave it at that.

Second, and perhaps a more serious problem is in invoking despots in Islamic history for the support of Serageldin:
During the golden age of Islamic science, scientific advances were often associated with repression, principally because scholars had to rely on the reigning despots to support and fund their work. Important contributions to algebra and optics, for example, were made during regimes in the ninth and eleventh centuries AD that were repressive even by the standards of the time. And yet the scientists who worked for them, such as the mathematician al-Khwarizmi in Baghdad and the polymath ibn al-Haytham in Cairo, are now celebrated as pathfinders. Similarly, Serageldin could not have achieved what he did at the library without the support of the Mubarak regime.
Really? How far does the journal Nature go in history to comment on British science policies? Does it take into account the policies of Charles II at the time of Isaac Newton? May be if there are some budget-cuts, Nature can find parallels from the time of the Richard the Lionheart, and argue for tough times because of wars overseas.

If these analogies seem pointless from modern perspectives, then so should be the appeal to Islamic history in the case of Ismail Serageldin. There is nothing wrong in arguing in support for his Directorship using current political canvas. But please spare us this simplistic historical narrative which assumes that nothing much has changed between the medieval Muslim world and contemporary Egypt. One expects better from the premier journal of science!


Gary said...

Got 'em right between the eyes Salman.

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Gary.