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Change in the air: science in the Muslim world

16th century illustration of astronomers in Istanbul

Ehsan Masood
23 March 2006
Source: SciDev.Net

The Islamic world's scientific agency is on a path to reform. Ehsan Masood assesses the obstacles on the road ahead.

Across the Muslim world, the controversy over newspaper cartoons of the prophet Mohammad was reaching a peak. I was heading to Pakistan for a meeting of science ministers on 21 February. At my starting point in Cairo, Egypt, riot police had surrounded the Al Azhar mosque, keeping a close watch on an otherwise peaceful demonstration after Friday prayers.

In Pakistan, demonstrations in several cities had ended in violence. Now the capital Islamabad was under pressure, with religious leaders planning a protest march to the seat of government.

Security there was tighter than usual as science ministers from the 57 predominantly Muslim countries that are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) arrived. They were gathering for the biennial conference of COMSTECH, the OIC agency that promotes scientific cooperation between member states.

Until recently, most OIC institutions have largely been closed to the outside world. But this is beginning to change, and the OIC has put itself on a ten-year path to modernisation and reform. So what are the barriers to change that COMSTECH must overcome?

Two such problems are the low levels of spending on science, and the lack of productivity in science in Muslim states. These were underlined in a report launched at the meeting, Status of Scientific Research in OIC Member States.

The report confirms that OIC-members remain among the world's least scientifically productive nations, accounting for less than three per cent of English-language research papers published in international journals between 1995 and 2005.

Moreover, the report shows that, on average, OIC countries currently spend only 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development compared to an average of 2.3 per cent in 2003 for industrialised nations.

At the ministerial meeting, Atta ur Rahman, COMSTECH's coordinator-general and Pakistan's minister for higher education, told delegates that little progress could be made unless member states unlocked much larger sums for science and technology.

"COMSTECH is determined to provide assistance to the scientific community in the OIC region," he said. "What remains to be seen is how committed member states are in helping COMSTECH to achieve these goals."

Another problem is poverty. Under proposals agreed at a special summit in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2005, member states pledged to tackle poverty by working more closely with the international community in particular, by aligning policy priorities with the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Of the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank's (IDB) budget for the poorest OIC countries, ten per cent has been set aside for science and technology-related projects.

The IDB and COMSTECH held a two-day symposium before the ministerial meeting to help prioritise science spending in the poorest countries. Experts were invited to suggest ways of strengthening science in African OIC states.

Whereas in the past, such an event would have relied on input from Muslim countries, this time the organisers were keen to learn from the experiences of others including the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), the International Foundation for Science, SciDev.Net, the UN Millennium Project, and UNESCO.

Clearly, a desire to change is strong, but officials inside COMSTECH and in the wider OIC know that the task ahead will not be an easy one, in part because of the strong influence of religion in Muslim states.

"We do not have the luxury of blaming others for our own problems," acknowledges Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a historian of science from Turkey, who is the current OIC secretary general. "We need to address our problems with courage and with openness."

OIC members include some of the world's wealthiest nations such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as well as some of the poorest, including Somalia and Sudan. But what they have in common is that they all have large Muslim populations. Indeed, among the many lessons the cartoon controversy has taught us is the degree to which these populations are committed to the practice of faith.

Religion plays a much more prominent role in both the public and private sphere in Muslim countries than it does in the Western world. For example, in many countries, public meetings begin with a recital from the Qur'an, and time is always allocated for one or more of the five daily prayers that are regarded as compulsory for all believers.

At the Islamabad ministerial conference, for example, Atta ur Rahman opened his own presentation as he always does with the words: "In the name of God, most kind and merciful".

As usual, many of the delegates addressed each other as 'brother', partly out of respect, but mostly because of the idea that all Muslims are part of a global family of believers, known as the 'ummah'. And it is common to hear conversations punctuated by the phrase 'insha-Allah', which means 'God-willing'.

If the cartoons controversy has shown how seriously most Muslims take the practice of faith, a new exhibition (also online at: that has just opened in Manchester, United Kingdom will reinforce it. The exhibition shows the scientific achievements that were inspired by a commitment to religion in the Islamic empire that spanned southern Europe to eastern Asia between the 8th and 12th centuries.

So what is different between then and now? According to some commentators, one important, but missing ingredient is freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to ask difficult questions, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to challenge existing theories.

There are severe limits to these freedoms in many Arabic-speaking countries today, says Nader Fergany, a science policy researcher from Egypt and editor of the UN's Arab Human Development Report. AbdolKarim Soroush, an Iranian philosopher of science agrees, saying that censorship in today's Muslim world is stronger than at any other time in history.

An increase in funding for science and technology will no doubt make a difference, but equally important is the need for OIC states to take a more relaxed approach to writing and publishing. This could be the biggest test of their commitment to revive science and learning in the Muslim world.

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