The upheaval in multiple Arab countries, known as the “Arab Spring”, is certain to lead to new political structures in a part of the world hitherto dominated by monarchies and dictatorships. But this revolution against autocratic stability and despotism, which are largely responsible for keeping the Arab world in darkness, does not by itself guarantee that a scientific revival is around the corner. An Arab renaissance will happen only if appropriate cultural and attitudinal changes follow the political changes. How fast, or slow, these countries move into the 21st century will depend on how Arabs choose to reinvent their way of life.
Formidable obstructions lie up ahead. Since the end of Islam’s Golden Era in the 13th century, dogmatic religious beliefs have created an anti-science culture that encourages passive acceptance of knowledge and discourages true inquiry. But science demands a mindset that incessantly questions and challenges assumptions, not one that relies upon received wisdom from holy books. The inquisitive mind is frowned upon in most traditional societies, and it is an undeniable truth that intellectual and personal freedoms are sharply restricted in Muslim countries. Lack of intellectual space prevents talented young Muslims from exercising their innate intellectual capabilities and becoming accomplished actors, directors, singers, dancers, musicians, composers, artists, and writers. This is also why there are very few Muslim Arab scientists and mathematicians who are world class.
Muslim Arabs will have to cast off the false, but widely held belief, that science is somehow contained within their religion. They must reject the notion that supplications to the powers “up above” can actually change material outcomes. The existing “inshallah” culture – which denies causality and puts the onus on God for everything – is unsupportive of science and, in fact, antithetical to it. Existing attitudes have meant that Arab science, at best, has been limited to adapting some available technologies to meet immediate ends.
Arab work habits are poor, and there are frequent interruptions for the purpose of fulfilling religious rituals. To become competitive with the modern world, punctuality and adherence to man-made rules will need to improve dramatically. Also, the strictly utilitarian view of science as a mere handmaiden of technology must give way to a realization that humans are inventors, not mere discoverers.
One must welcome the Arab Spring as a hope inspiring change in a part of the world that, so far, has learned to consume but not produce. The realization that there is something deeply wrong may yet spur the deep introspection needed for changing cultural mores and the way of life.Tags: Arab world