Recent decades have brought extraordinary transformations in information technology and in biotechnology, the collective impact of which has been felt worldwide. These transformations often reinforce feelings of powerlessness among those who have not benefited. This session explored the challenges that these developments pose for governments, societies, and traditional moral authorities, as well as for ordinary citizens.
The session’s chair, Ronald Lehman, director of the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States, opened by identifying the role of science in facilitating intercivilizational engagement and its ability to build bridges that transcend differences and to offer shared opportunities to improve lives around the world. However, particular scientific discoveries and applications of technology can create tensions when they conflict with cultural practices and religious beliefs.
Mr. Lehman raised four questions to lead the discussion. First, noting that participation in the global high–tech sector is made possible by education that is not equally accessible to all, he asked how science and technology can reach out to the different strata within communities. Second, he inquired whether faith and science advance together in the Muslim world and beyond, or whether they are adversaries. Third, Mr. Lehman wondered whether the Muslim world was transitioning from consumer to producer of technology at home and abroad and the implications of such evolution for the Muslim–Western relationship. Fourth, he asked how scientific cooperation between Muslims and Westerners could contribute to international peace and security and could mitigate the danger of “dual use” technology, such as nuclear energy.
The first speaker, Imran Ali, prefaced his remarks by making three underlying statements about the issue of technology. He noted, first, that there is no contradiction between Islam as a religion and the scientific pursuit of knowledge. Like all religions, however, Islam places certain moral limits on the application of science, proscribing, for example, the use of ultrasound technology in the service of fetal sex selection. Second, during the past five centuries, the Muslim world has been beset by a downturn in scientific production, while the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution led to dramatic advances in Western technology. Third, the technology gap was reinforced by the subjugation of most Muslim countries during the colonial era. As global technological transformations continue to accelerate, will the gap widen, or will there be a breakthrough in the Muslim production of high–quality, scientific advancement?
Mr. Ali noted that in quantitative terms there are many centers of technological research in the Muslim world, but the limited quality of their contributions hinders the Muslim world’s competitiveness. While there are many top–notch individuals in the sciences, they rarely aggregate into first–rate schools or departments. With the notable exception of Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia and Iran, the Muslim world lacks industrial clusters that produce and patent technology. Excluding only the resource–based sectors (oil and gas), there are few, if any, companies based in the Muslim world that could be included in the top 500 worldwide. These deficiencies urgently need to be addressed.
Mr. Ali felt that current prospects for a scientific and technological revolution in the Muslim world are dim. On the economic front, where there are advances, such as in the large and dynamic “grey–market” sector, they tend to undermine the structural profitability of bona fide activities. Additionally, the removal of subsidies in many countries, compounded by rising production costs, has further diminished competitiveness. Apart from oil–driven activities, Muslim economies score low in innovation–based production. The private sector is still factory based and has not moved to a more agile, digital platform. This technological frailty also has military consequences: most Muslim countries have no significant technologically advanced weaponry. The economic, geopolitical, and strategic implications of globalization are, hence, linked.
The second speaker, Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia–Herzegovina, began by examining the relationship between faith and science. He noted that science is a tool used for achieving human goals, but it is not a goal in and of itself. This relationship has always underscored the interaction between theologians and scientists. Intellectual tolerance has been a distinctive feature of Islam for centuries, including lengthy periods during which other civilizations were stuck in their dark ages. The dramatic decline of the high scientific profile of the Islamic world challenges a staging of a “comeback,” while avoiding both assimilation through secularization and the isolation that would result from a rejection of globalization.
The next speaker, Rainer Wessel, president of Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, began by highlighting that technology poses great challenges to us all, regardless of location or faith. Mr. Wessel stressed that the current era is witnessing a momentous technological revolution fueled by three areas of innovation: information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. The publication of the human genome in 2001 constituted a landmark event encapsulating this recent history. While scientists themselves have placed ethical limits on their own research, the overarching challenge today is closing the gap between fast–developing technology and legislation that is not keeping pace. He suggested that there is a role for nongovernmental organizations, such as the recently launched International Council for the Life Sciences, to provide independent, field–based regulation.
Mr. Wessel explained that the United States has led the way in recent scientific progress—particularly in biotechnology—with Europe and Asia closely following. As technology has become the principal driving force behind these economies, potential abuses of its products also increase. Technology is inherently neither good nor bad: what matters is the use to which it is put. Pressing ethical questions regarding the application of technology have been posed across different cultures, polities, and religions, with the debate constantly shifting along with scientific innovation.
Mr. Wessel concluded by stating that sciences seem to flourish better in open societies. With science now a major driving force behind successful economies, he pointed to the need for economic and political liberalization in Muslim countries to stir scientific development.
The panel’s discussant, Mark Smolinski, director of the Global Health and Security Initiative and vice president for Biological Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) based in Washington, D.C., discussed the work of his organization to improve global capacity for prevention of and preparedness to biological threats through enhanced disease surveillance, early detection, and response. A consequence of globalization is that diseases spread quickly and over great distances, as demonstrated by recent severe acute respiratory system (SARS) and Asian bird flu epidemics. The NTI is working to establish regional organizations to monitor and respond to infectious diseases and has launched one such pilot program in the Middle East involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Jordan—demonstrating that regional cooperation in the arena of science and technology is possible even in a volatile area.
Mr. Bulliet launched this portion of the discussion by questioning the relationship between Western–trained Muslim scientists and scientific development in their home countries. Just as the repatriation of U.S.–based Chinese and Indian scientists has contributed in no small measure to these countries’ recent economic successes, could the same not be true for the Muslim world? Mr. Ali responded that, at this point, many Muslim scientists return to their countries of origin only to find that they cannot make a significant contribution in the absence of a professional environment conducive to sustained scientific creation. With scarce research possibilities and a culture of bureaucratic and institutional impediments—and with no apparent leadership invested in resolving these problems—Muslim scientists often find it impossible to live and work in their home countries. The Islamic world must culturally reinvest in the sciences to stem this brain drain.
Mr. Bulliet also pointed out that major scientific contributions during the Muslim golden age took advantage of that civilization’s permeability and lack of national boundaries. Today, technological pursuit is centered nationally, whereas Muslim scientists might fare best by creating regional networks.
Hussein Solomon, director of the Center for International Political Studies at the University of Pretoria, endorsed Mr. Wessel’s statement about the link between technology and open societies and added that changes in educational systems—shifting away from rote learning to critical inquiry—are necessary to foster a revival of technological progress in the Muslim world. This must also be supported by active recruitment of and competitive salaries for promising scientists. Abdelmajid Charfi, professor emeritus of humanities and Islamic studies at the University of Tunis, concurred, adding that dogmatic training and memory–based education, as opposed to open–minded engagement, are conducive neither to proper education nor scientific production. Mina Al–Oraibi, a journalist for Asharq Al–Awsat, noted that these challenges are compounded by an urgent sense among Arab youth of having to catch up with fast–paced global transformations.
Mr. Fücks questioned the existence of such a discipline as “Islamic science.” Religion could be a source for ethical guidance in science, he offered, but religion should not interfere with science. This concern is not unique to Islam, but one that is relevant to Christianity as well, with regard to the teaching of evolution, for example. Several participants agreed that Muslims should avoid adding the qualifier “Islamic” to science or other fields, as this demonstrates cultural insecurity and does not offer a constructive solution to the problems faced by Muslim countries.
Vitaly Naumkin, president of the International Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, wondered whether it might be useful to develop a Muslim scientific strategy or a joint Muslim vision of science. He also raised the question of whether measures adopted in the West for security reasons, such as the increased difficulty encountered by Muslims applying for visas to work or study in the United States, were preventing Muslims from gaining access to the information and education necessary for technological advancement. Mr. Wessel acknowledged that restrictions on the flow of knowledge are indeed a problem, not only between the Islamic and Western worlds, but within the West as well. Although such restrictions do not impair science itself and are mostly limited to regulating sensitive matters, certain people are excluded from information that could serve them better. For example, it is important that scientists in the Muslim world know about virulent viruses in order to make antibodies to fight them. The threat that such knowledge could fall into the hands of terrorists seeking biological weapons is offset by the benefits this knowledge would bring in the battle against infectious diseases.
The discussion then turned toward sources of funding for research and development in the Muslim world with Mr. Wessel remarking that although there is significant funding available from Muslim individuals—particularly in the Gulf countries—such support is not always effectively distributed across the Muslim world.
Mr. Nizami raised the problem of the widespread assumption of the West’s centrality in scientific matters, specifically the idea that progress demands the mirroring of Western history. Although the Enlightenment made future scientific advances possible, these, in turn, depended on Muslim philosophical and scientific contributions of an earlier era. Furthermore, Mr. Nizami added, much of Europe’s success rested on the institutionalized monopoly of patent protections and secured markets. Given that today’s Muslim societies have neither of these capabilities, can they do the same?
Mr. Ali suggested that while the European system cannot be replicated in the Muslim world, there are other models for industrialization that could be instructive. To create climates conducive to scientific development, governments across the Muslim world must establish and institutionalize private property rights, which would stimulate a virtuous cycle of investment and returns. Ultimately, Muslim countries must “set their own shops right,” and this begins with elites who all too often enrich themselves with little regard to the welfare of their less fortunate countrymen.
The session closed with Mr. Ceric noting that Islam and the West have the opportunity to build trust around the interplay between science, politics, and theology by cementing technological interdependence and enabling strong international regulatory systems.