Monday, January 25, 2010

Muslims, Jews and the Nobel Prize From the Jerusalem Post

Muslims, Jews and the Nobel Prize
Jerusalem Post ^ | 11-3-09 | URIYA SHAVIT

Posted on Tuesday, November 03, 2009 8:26:23 AM by SJackson

Next month, Prof. Ada Yonath will be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, becoming the fifth Israeli scientist to win this award. This has sharpened, once again, the grim statistics regarding the scarcity of Nobel laureates in the Muslim and Arab worlds. While Jews, who are only around 0.2 percent of the world population, have won a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded in the sciences, Muslims, who are one quarter of the world population, have won only a handful, even by the most generous accounts. And while relative to its size, Israel's tiny academia has been the world's leading Nobel power over the past decade, Arab universities have yet to produce their first Nobel laureate.

Ada Yonath from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Photo: AP [file] Israelis and Jews worldwide consider these awards a source of pride - and rightly so. It's always nice to be on a winning team. Muslims and Arabs view these numbers as a source of shame and even soul-searching. Even Muslim religious scholars who portray Western political systems, social foundations and cultural achievements as manifestations of infidel entities in decay recognize that the West's huge scientific and technological edge must be narrowed. Some openly discuss Israel's scientific achievements to encourage their followers to become more academically competitive.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM offers a conventional explanation for the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes in science awarded to Jews and Israelis: the "Jewish genius," whereas Muslims and Arabs fail because they live under dictatorships. This explanation is not completely detached from reality, but is, nevertheless, not sufficient.

The truth is that a certain type of Jew has won Nobel Prizes. These Jewish laureates drew on a Jewish heritage that dedicates itself to learning, reveres scholars and places intellectual demands on its young people. But these laureates were also modern Jews, open to modern sciences and rational thinking, and keen on making their way in the greater world that exists beyond their communities. Remove one part of this equation - heritage or modernity - and the "Jewish genius" vanishes.

This particular type of Jew is a nearly extinct species. Secular Jews, especially secular Israelis, are increasingly detached from the heritage of giving primacy to education and scholarship. They are inundated by a culture that reveres instant celebrity, shameless greed and utter stupidity. Observant Jews, especially observant Israelis, are increasingly facing trends that are hostile toward rationality, suspicious of modernity and indifferent to the merits of scientific experimentation.

Many lament the reduction in funds earmarked for sciences in Israel. But this is the symptom, not the disease. Where scientists receive no respect, they also receive little or no money. To continue winning Nobel Prizes, the Jewish world in general (and the State of Israel in particular) need more than financial resources. They need to defend and cultivate the particular kind of Jew who has been awarded one out of every four Nobel Prizes. And they must do so without caving in to political correctness or cultural relativism.

The case of the Muslim and Arab worlds also evokes a discussion. It is a historical fact that authoritarian regimes and dictatorships have produced inferior scientific achievements in comparison to liberal, open societies. Until its collapse, the Soviet Union lagged scientifically and technologically behind the United States; the gap increasingly widened and eventually led to the breakdown of the communist empire. However, the Soviet Union did excel in some sciences and produced many brilliant academics. The same holds for other non-democratic regimes.

Today, Stalinist North Korea sells technology to Stalinist Syria, not the other way round. Thus, the lack of political pluralism accounts for part of the Muslim and Arab scientific failures. But it does not explain why they are so absolute.

Another explanation is the lack of religious and intellectual freedom in most Muslim societies, where religious scholars have monopolized the spiritual and the metaphysical in a way that disrupts scientific progress. What does a monopoly of the spiritual and the metaphysical have to do with the study of chemistry or physics? Everything. Science can only flourish in a culture that does not recognize any taboos and constantly doubts creeds of all sorts. Nobel laureates cannot grow from cultures that raise kids from an early age to never question a certain conceptualization of reality.

This does not imply that science and religion are not commensurable; some of the world's greatest scientists have been deeply religious. But it is almost impossible for great scientific minds to exhaust their potential in societies where the clergy have ultimate control over intellectual quests.

IN THE late 19th century, a reform movement emerged in the Muslim world. It recognized that for Muslims to embark on an age of renaissance, modern sciences must be embraced. Reformists endeavored to convince Muslims that modern sciences do not contradict Islam - and were quite successful in doing so. This school, developed by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, is often mistakenly described as liberal; in fact, its primary goal was to defend Islam against Western hegemony. It aspired to offer a theological framework that would allow Muslims to be part of modernity without compromising their belief in the comprehensive essence of Islam.

The one thing these reformers never intended to do was to release society from the shackles of religious scriptures monopolized by religious establishments. And ironically enough, it is exactly because Afghani and Abduh's relatively modern and relatively tolerant school of thought became so influential - appeasing the minds of so many Muslims that religion can indeed encompass every aspect of modernity - that the Arab intellectual world is still locked in a spirit of taboo and fear.

Some 100 years ago, it was possible, although risky, for an Arab to doubt whether the Koran was a divine text. Any Arab who does so today would be signing his own death warrant. Sadly enough, many contemporary Western intellectuals also think twice before discussing Muslim creed. Where particular aspects of life, such as religion, cannot be openly debated, thorough scientific investigation is impossible.

Contemporary Arab religious scholars commonly offer apologias that attribute Western scientific achievements to the intellectual legacy an ungrateful West inherited from the Muslim world. By doing so, they shut their eyes to the deep historical context of Western renaissance. Contemporary leading Arab universities produce books and essays that depict Darwin, Freud, Marx and other brilliant modern minds as part of a Jewish conspiracy to bring about the downfall of humanity. By doing so, they distract their audiences from entire fields of scientific study.

Despite whatever racists imply, there is nothing essential about Muslims or Arabs that prevents them from winning Nobel Prizes. But for a scientific revolution to occur in these regions, more than political reform is needed. Rather, true intellectual freedom must be established. Since this is nowhere in sight, my hope - in fact, my guess - is that the first Muslim affiliated with a Middle Eastern university to win a Nobel Prize will be an Arab-Israeli. And he or she will teach Jews and Muslims alike a very valuable lesson.

The writer is director of Programs in Democracy at the Adelson Institute. This article was first published by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, at the Shalem Center,


Anonymous said...

Great article.
I think you will find that the widespread practice of marrying cousins, has seriously affected the muslim gene pool, hence the pathetic achievment record.

Jenna said...

I seriously doubt the many Jews who have achieved great things in the sciences have done so *because* they seriously doubted the Divine source of their holy scriptures. one thing has nothing to do with the other. to believe in God, and to believe in God revealing a path to humankind, is not to disbelieve in science. if you studied Muslim history, particular in medieval times, it is full of impressive scientific and mathematical scholarship.

and to Anonymous: you can cite no statistics, of course, because what you say is a lie. who exactly is in this "Muslim gene pool"? 1.6 billion people of different ethnicities and cultures. Idiot.

Nalliah said...

Centuries ago, after the decline of the Roman Empire, Muslims in Spain worked along with Jews in developing literature, science, music and art. Together, they translated classical Greek texts into Arabic. This task later helped Europe move out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. Arab and Persian scholars like Zakariā ye Rāzi, Alī ben-Nāfi, Yaqūb ibn-Tāriq, Ibn-an-Nafis, Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Abd-al-Malik ibn-Zuhr, Takiyuddin, Ghazali and Ibn Rushd contributed to the mankind including Arabic numerals, the digit "zero", architecture, music, art, etc.
While the cultural domain in the Middle East was overwhelmingly Persian, the major development of the Arab culture took place in Spain and, by coincidence, also the main Jewish settlement of that period. Jews flourished under Arab rulers.
Jews were expelled from settlement in Spain five hundred years ago. Under Turkish rulers the Arab world collapsed, the Arabic culture declined and the Arab scientific development ceased. Since beginning of the 1700s the number of Jewish scholars in science and arts is in constant increasement in Europe and subsequently in the North America. The current Arab culture has lots of natural resources to exploit. Also the current Arab culture is insular and poor in intellectual life. The current Jewish culture is entirely opposite to the current Arab culture. A culture that fostered and prized intellectualism is always created out of need and opportunity.
Muslims began challenging the power of their religious leaders. Muslim intellectuals lost in their challenge of their religious power. Mullahs declared a Fatah that anyone who challenged them should be put to death. The intellectuals folded and Arab culture stayed frozen for the last five hundred years. During the inquisition time the science was on very poor level in Christian countries too. Separation of social life and religion boosted the science and education in Christian countries. Modern life means embracing science and technology but Muslims can’t even agree to adopt scientific lunar calendar. When the religion and social life are separated, it opens the way to free discussions which produce the better and faster way to embrace science and technology. Religious leaders in most Muslim countries have monopolized the spiritual and the metaphysical in a way that disrupts scientific progress in those countries. Science, knowledge and education can only flourish in a culture that won't recognize any taboos and constantly doubts creeds of all sorts. The Nobel laureates cannot grow from cultures where the religious leaders have ultimate control over intellectual quests. It is very difficult for great scientific minds to exhaust their potential in countries due to the lack of religious and intellectual freedom.
The countries where restrictions for the religious life are not very strict, the population is highly educated. Bangladesh and Indonesia combined do not publish half as many research papers annually as Malaysia.
The lack of political pluralism accounts for part of the lack of education among Muslims. Muslim countries are stifled under secular prowestern backward, divisive dictatorial authoritarian repressive western-supported regimes that want to keep Muslims weak, divided and backward.
Iran is the only sizable Muslim country that is free from Western meddling. Iran has more than ten times the average world growth in scientific publications. Iran launched Kavoshgar4 to space with biocapsule intended to carry a monkey to space, paving the way for human space flight. Iran has its own supercomputer, national operating system, world leading nanotechnology, biotechnology, launched own satellites to space, makes own automobiles, builds own aircrafts.
Muslims should look at their corrupt religious and political leaders who hijacked their beautiful culture in order to stay in power. This was the problem not only five hundred years ago, now too.