Friday, March 06, 2015

A somewhat strange opinion piece in Nature on Muslims and science

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Nature has an opinion piece by Indonesian science journalist, Dyna Rochmyaningsih.
The title of the piece is Focus on political Islamic groups to boost science. One of her key points - which I think is largely correct - is that science promoters should not ignore Islamist groups as they hold influence in some societies. She goes further and makes an excellent point that it is important to understand how political and ideological groups influence views about science:
Rather than reconciliation, it is important to monitor and understand the way in which political and ideological groups influence how young Muslims view science.
All well and good, and this is something that we are trying to do at SSiMS (Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies) at Hampshire. But there are some serious problems with the piece as well. For example, she -paints a picture that blurs the line between ISIS, European terror attacks, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This is how her article starts:
Recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the continued activity of the jihadist group ISIS in the Middle East have thrown the spotlight firmly back on radical Islam. Some studies blame the Muslim world's poor and unstable economies for the spread of this fundamentalism. Presumably then, improving the economy could help Muslim societies to tackle these radical movements. 
Science can play a big part in this economic development, as it has in other places. But because some Muslims see a conflict between science and their faith, the philosophical question of how to reconcile the two is at the heart of many efforts to advance scientific development in the Muslim world.
And here is the place where she brings in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir:
The radical Islamists of ISIS see science as an attribute of their enemies. They have denounced the great Medieval Muslim scientists Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Nafis as heretics and atheists. It is clear that such rhetoric — if influential — will hold back scientific development in Muslim countries. 
Here in Indonesia, for example, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir have a strong presence in high schools and universities, and this gives them profound influence on young Muslims' views of the world, including science. 
The influence is not all negative to science. The Muslim Brotherhood, although hostile to evolution, encourages talented scientists to develop their careers and helps to place them on postgraduate courses overseas, typically in Japan. Many of these people return to Indonesia as university lecturers.
I think this would be a fine line of argument. But by bringing in ISIS, it presents a picture not that different from Fox News or the one argued by General Sisi. This is a shame as I think she is making an important point. Another weird part is that she is writing this piece in response to a task force that just met in Turkey, where an Islamist government is in charge. The problem is that she is placing all Islamist groups under one banner when their attitudes and approaches to science may be completely different. Not to mention that European attacks have a very different context than what is taking place in Indonesia, and that is different from what is taking place in Turkey or in Mali. In the current political environment, such conflations are deeply counter-productive.

Plus, the use of science in her article is just too broad. In general, the attitude is positive in various parts of the Muslim world. Here is the Pew survey on this from 2013:

Indonesia and Iraq - two places mentioned in her article - both seem to have a broad support for science. Of course, the issue comes in with specific issues, like evolution or other questions of origins. Dyna's solution is to inculcate scientific thinking before they are exposed to political ideas:
Reconciliation is an individual process, and something that is intangible in the realm of policy-making. By contrast, hard-line groups can influence whole societies. To capitalize on this influence, we might need to reform science education in primary schools in the Muslim world, and teach young people to think for themselves before they are exposed to political ideas.
I don't know but something doesn't seem right here as politics is always embedded in the system. Plus, she now brings in the term "hard-line groups" and claims that they can "influence whole societies". Since she has been talking about political Islamist groups, my assumption is that "hard-line groups". What makes them "hardline" compared to say General Sisi or the secularists of Turkey in the not so distant past?

But I do agree with Dyna that the key here is the promotion of critical thinking more than anything else, and such critical thinking may lead us to see not only science but also culture in a nuanced and complicated way. In addition, we do not want students to grow up apathetic to politics (this is what General Zia in Pakistan tried to do in the 1980s). The full narrative of Arab Spring - and other equivalent springs in non-Arab Muslim countries - is yet to be written, and the ability to think critically and for oneself, will be crucial.

Read the full article here (you will need subscription for full access).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know, but from people I have worked with I'd say that there is a tendency for strict muslims with narrow interpretations of islam to take up applied sciences rather than theoretical- physicians rather than physiologists, engineers rather than physicists, pharmacists rather than chemists- where they are less likely to face contradictions between beliefs.