Editorial: Science Over Dogma

Editorial Omong-Omong

5 min read

When Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank, concludes in his book “Great Divide” that by the end of the day it is politics and government’s policies – not some inevitable economic laws, business decisions or new invention and innovation — which have dictated and will continue to determine the fate of human kinds and the world – from war, violence, climate change, poverty, to rising economic gap – we know we live in fragility and vulnerability.

It’s Vladimir Putin’s political decision that Russia invaded Ukraine that caused millions deaths and suffering, practically halting any achievements made by Ukraine, and sending impacts of hunger to billions others across the globe. It’s after all George Bush’s decision to attack and then remove Saddam Hussein and reform Iraq that caused the radicalization of Sunni there and helped the birth of ISIS – as correctly warned by Pakistani author and activist Eqbal Ahmad – and destroy whatever progresses achieved in that part of the world. These are, of course, just two of many catastrophic consequences of self-interest and power hungry decisions and actions.

Putting our life and the world in the hands of people who not only aim at achieving their own interests and preserving their own power but also in many cases do not have the capacity and knowledge to do their jobs, or even unaware of the consequences of their decisions, will never be a good business – in many cases, catastrophic – and must at any time endanger achievements and progress made by humankinds.

That’s why great figures – philosophers, scientists, scholars, authors and academics – along the history are those who actively tried to shape the world with whatever knowledge and capacities they had, preventing these very people to rule, or if they ever rule, prevent them to misuse their power to ruin people’s lives. Regardless whether they are in natural or social sciences, educated people, especially scientists are frequently, at the forefront of these efforts because people’s welfare, injustice, violence and evil are for all of us to deal with. These affairs – the fate of humanity – are too important to be left at the hands of narrow-minded and self-centered politicians and opportunists.

It’s in this very context that we must remember and greatly appreciate sacrifices and hard works done by – using Antonio Gramsci’s term – these organic intellectuals. From Socrates to various Islamic thinkers, Galileo Galilei, to even Adam Smith, Karl Marx to Gramsci himself and to many contemporary scientists and scholars, such as Joseph Stiglitz whose opinion mentioned above, they have all actively involved in social activism one way or another because they want push rulers and their policies for the betterment of the society based on their reasons and knowledge.

It’s precisely because they are scientists – the world’s most educated and rational people – that they must involve because they have reasons and logic rather than relying on some arbitrary speculation possessed by the corrupt ruling elites in politics and, especially religion.

This is why a lecture delivered by Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, not only one of most prominent Pakistan’s academics but also one of world’s most renowned nuclear physicists, titled “Islam, Science and the Quest for Modernity in the 21st Century” in an annual event organized by Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore (NUS) last Saturday (Sept. 24) to commemorate the works of another giant thinker, Syed Hussein Alatas, can’t be more important and timely.

Alatas as Hoodbhoy said was one of the greatest sociologists Asia has ever produced, with his 1977’s book “The Myth of Lazy Native” had by a full one year preceded Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, a world-wide acclaimed book that changes the studies of social sciences, history and culture, giving foundation to post-colonial researches. Said has acknowledged the importance of Alatas’ book, and was inspired by it when writing his “Orientalism”.

Conservatism Kills Science and Progress

Said, Alatas and Hoodbhoy are organic intellectuals who have been voyaging on social and political activism and commentaries to try to stop social injustices within their respective country, breaking the norms that academics must stay researching while defying pressure from political and religious authorities to merely stay in campus.

And one of their biggest adversaries are people who use religion to preserve power. The worst kind of corrupt authorities are those using religion as their tool to manipulate the public. Corruption within a corporation can destroy that business while corruption with a state bureaucracy can cause poverty and misery among people within a country but manipulating people using religion can wipe out the whole civilization by stopping progress, condemning curiosity and critical thinking as well as killing science, knowledge and innovation.

In his lecture he argued that Muslims could produce their great scientific works under caliphs he mentioned as liberal, such as Harun al-Rashid of Abbasid empire or Abd-el Rahman III of Umayyad Cordoba, because these caliphs invited various intellectuals regardless of their religion – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Nestorians – to come and discuss various issues in regard to development of knowledge and well as the latest science and technology.

“It’s in the spirit of liberalism, science prospered in Islam, and it did so for a long time – 4 centuries,” he said, adding that if it was that long then it means there was some support from society, at least from upper echelon of society.

Such a liberal tradition and cosmopolitan atmosphere, Hoodbhoy contented, presented Islam with among others people like Ommar Khayyam, who is not only a mathematician but also a polymath, contributing greatly to mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and poetry, and Ibn al- Haytham, who discovered the law of optics long before Francis Bacon investigated the matter.

But the increase of conservatism pushed curiosity and critical thinking away, and thus when Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy and cause and effect law, he started the annihilation the tradition of scientific endeavor in Islam. Al-Ghazali’s negation and encouraging the concept of divine intervention in every stage of human activities “essentially killed science in Islam”, gradually bringing Islam civilization to what we see today.

The rise of conservatism and Muslims’ turning their back against science explain why Islamic empires were wiped out entirely, and the Western civilization which take over the learning and Islamic scientific tradition filled the void with its exploration and colonization and later renaissance and industrial revolution.

Forget US, China, Europe, Russia, or India, which clearly have made much greater contribution to science and technology that the Muslims have. Hoodbhoy then highlights the importance of mastery in science and technology today by singling out how Israel, a country with 9 million people, can dictate the Arab world, which has a combined population of nearly 500 million, and Islamic world, comprising of 47 Muslim-majority nations with a combined population of 1.4 billion people.

“The amount of science and technology that Israel produces is far greater than that of 1.4 billion Muslims. That has given Israel phenomenal political and military power with which it has been able to subdue 500 million Arabs and make them obey whatever Israel want to do in the Middle East, and dispossessed Palestinian as it chooses to do,” Hoodbhoy argues.

He stated that such phenomenal power did not come not from the support of the US, or grand conspiracy between the US and Israel to destroy Islam as many Muslims would like to believe but from the training of the mind and the ability to deal with science and technology.

“Saudi Arabia has received far more military hardware from the US than Israel has. And yet, the ability to innovate and even the ability to use these technology depends essentially upon the training of the mind and ability to deal with these products of modernity,” Hoodbhoy said.

Real Impacts: Consumerism and Poverty

Hoodbhoy’s argumentation should have now warned Muslims on the importance of the mastery of science and technology, and the danger of falling into conservatism following clerics who are anti-modernity and science.

Centuries of neglecting science and technology which resulted in low productivity, creativity and innovation have turned Muslims, including those in Southeast Asia, into mere consumers, being exploited by more technological advanced nations, and making them among the world’s poorest.

Out of a total of 7 billion world population, around 20 percent or 1.4 billion are Muslims. Of that many, almost a quarter or more than 300 million live in extreme poverty. That’s half of the world’s poorest people. This means more than 300 million Muslims can’t adequately access to healthcare, shelter and other most basic human needs for survival.

The tragedy is that these Muslim majority countries hold 70 percent of the world’s natural resources that includes, oil, natural gas, gold, copper and many other valuable reserves. This tragedy is a direct result of Muslim neglecting the science and technology, and instead living on the beliefs pushed by some clerics wanting to stay in power, deciding that they are forbidden (haram) products from the West.

Despite the clear cause of all evils, conservatism has grown stronger in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, the world’s Muslim majority nation.

For far too long many Muslims – often majority of them – have lived under the conservative interpretation of Islamic teachings, resulting in a division among Muslims themselves and anti-progress attitude and mindset. Now it’s time to take over from them, and as quickly as possible we must move to fix our education and make mastering science and technology a priority before it’s gone too late and unfixed.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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