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Letting in the light: Science and democracy in the Muslim world

March 17, 2017

Naser Faruqui

Director, Technology and Innovation, IDRC

The political dramas unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries present pivotal opportunities. These events improve the prospects for harnessing science and its values to advance sustainable and equitable development, openness, and democracy in the Islamic world.

During Europe’s so-called Dark Ages, Islamic scientists led the world in innovation. In this “golden age” of Muslim science, Muslim scholars made advances that remain cornerstones of our scientific outlook. Al-Khwārizmī developed algebra, for example, and The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sīnā (latinized as Avicenna) became the standard medical text used in Europe for centuries.

Enquiry and debate are the essence of the scientific method — and the foundations of any open society. It is unsurprising that, during this era, respect for science transcended religion, and scholars of all faiths exchanged ideas and advanced learning.

But following the 13th century, for several reasons, Muslim societies fell into a long decline. One feature of that decline was a mistrust of innovation and debate by Muslim leaders. Consequently, the Islamic world today is characterized by low levels of science, development, and openness.

Many predominantly Muslim countries are ruled by authoritarian governments. Half the 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) are developing countries. And 15 of the 20 countries that spend the least on the research and development needed to escape poverty belong to the OIC.

Yet, recently, Muslim leaders have shown signs of increasing respect for science. For instance, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested large amounts in research universities, and Turkey increased its research and development spending by 600% over the last decade. Such investments have been paying off: for example, more Muslim women are earning advanced science degrees.

Against this backdrop, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and eight partner organizations support Britain’s Royal Society in mapping the changing landscape of science in 15 countries across the OIC. The project, titled The Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation, also charts the delicate interplay among science, innovation, culture, and politics.

As we know, the recent relationship between the Islamic world and the West has been fraught with risk. Neither party benefits if Muslim countries slide further down the scale of science or development. Regardless what new leaders may emerge in countries such as Egypt, far greater investment in science, technology, and innovation must happen if OIC countries are to prosper. Furthermore, this investment must be underpinned by greater international collaboration. Otherwise, we may see the same protests again, from citizens whose governments have changed but who find themselves no better off.

Investment in science by developing countries helps alleviate poverty and foster openness – but these improvements take time. Many countries with strong R&D sectors can also be authoritarian. Sometimes, periods of military rule can be more supportive of science than periods of democracy. Science, for all its benefits, is no guarantee of development and democracy.

How can science be pursued in a way that does lead to multi-dimensional development, including economic gains but also greater transparency, voice, and freedom? Naturally, scientific rigour is essential, but three other principles are important:

First, science must be local. The best way to achieve sustainable and equitable development is to build homegrown capacity to do research. Rather than importing scientific know-how, people can, with help, acquire the skills they need to solve their own problems – and reduce their dependence on foreign aid.

Second, science must be multi-disciplinary. Research for development demands a range of approaches, which should be focussed on solving socioeconomic problems together with natural or engineering ones. In other words, the social sciences – which tend to be neglected in developing countries, including Muslim ones – are as crucial to success as are the natural or applied sciences.

And third, science must pursue equity and inclusiveness alongside growth. While it is essential to use science to promote growth and competitiveness, this measure is not enough. Many countries that have grown this way have widened the disparities between rich and poor. The solution is to choose science, technology, and innovation paths that will benefit society as whole, not just a narrow elite. 

Science is a constant process of discovery, reflection, discussion, and reconsideration. By its very nature, science is democratic – and therefore less welcome in societies that frown on public debate. But once we open the door to science, the light pours in, and remarkable things can happen. The emerging political changes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world may be only the beginning.

A version of this op-ed first appeared in The Globe and Mail on February 21, 2011.

Naser Faruqui is the Director of the Technology and Innovation program at IDRC.