Islam and Science: An Islamist revolution

Islamist political parties are taking over from secular ones across the Muslim world. What does this mean for science at home and scientific cooperation with the West? Ehsan Masood investigates.

At Peshawar University on the Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, there is much talk of growth. Its national centre for excellence in geology is to get 11 new labs, a library and a new museum. The provincial government, moreover, has handed the university the job of running a botanical garden and a 40.5-hectare national park.

Peshawar is the capital city of Pakistan’s northwest frontier province, the border region with Afghanistan where the Taliban first emerged among the Afghan refugee population in the 1990s. None of the university’s activities is unusual for a leading institute in a developing country. But what might seem surprising to outsiders is that, after many years of neglect, the university’s expansion comes at a time when local people have elected an alliance of political parties which, like the Taliban, want to base most laws on the Koran. Unusually for Pakistan, the current provincial government has forbidden male doctors from attending to female patients and has banned music on public transport.

The university is run by Haroon Rashid, a professor of chemistry who was appointed vice-chancellor in January 2006. In common with the majority of Pakistanis, Rashid is a Muslim, something that he is proud to make known. Could a university vice-chancellor in Peshawar be of any other faith? In today’s Peshawar, a non-Muslim vice-chancellor would be next to impossible.

Pakistan, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Sudan, has been run by governments that put Islam at the centre of politics for many years. As more Muslim countries give their citizens the right to vote, Islamist political groupings have taken power, or form the main opposition, in national or regional assemblies in Iraq, Kuwait, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Bahrain, Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan, Morocco, Malaysia and Turkey. Islamist is a term used to denote those committed to the application of Islamic principles and Islamic law in politics.

What can Muslim scientists expect from the new Islamist parties that are seeking power across the Muslim world? Will there be more support for science and for research infrastructure, as in Peshawar, but an environment where basic freedoms continue to be denied? The mostly secular, although undemocratic, regimes that have hitherto ruled for decades across the Muslim world have rarely paid more than lip-service to investment in science and technology. Consequently, today’s Muslim states barely register on indices of research spending, patents and publications, and only Turkey has universities in the global top 500.

Much of this is candidly documented in the four volumes so far of the Arab Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme, written entirely by Arabic-speaking social and natural scientists, which lays bare how knowledge-based activities such as science, innovation, book publishing, art and literature in Arabic-speaking countries are among the weakest in the world. The report does not consider non-Arab member states of the 57-strong Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey. But, as the data on show, the picture in the broader Muslim world is not much better.

The situation for Muslim science has been bad, and one assumption, based on current trends, is that things can only get worse. One fear is further restrictions on freedom of expression. Political leaders in the Muslim world, even in countries run on strict secular lines, are famously intolerant of dissent, as last year’s attempted prosecution in Turkey of Orhan Pamuk, this year’s winner of the Nobel prize for literature, demonstrates. Pamuk was accused of insulting Turkishness. Even today, few universities enjoy much autonomy, and appointments to research posts are opaque and prone to corruption. If secular governments did little for science, can Islamist ones be any worse?

In the search for answers, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a good place to start. The grandparent of Islamists, the brotherhood is a political party founded in Egypt in 1928. Its original aims included taking power, opposing Western influence in Egyptian politics, and governing using the Koran as the basis for lawmaking.

To be continued…

By Ehsan Masood, published in Nature.