As long as religious fundamentalist doctrines have influence, Muslim countries will lack a science base, warns Riaz Hassan.
Universities in Muslim countries did poorly in the recent Times Higher World Rankings. This is not a methodological artefact but rather a symptom of an academic and intellectual crisis. From 46 countries where Muslims are the majority, representing 16 per cent of the world's population, just two universities made it into the top 200 - coming in at 185th and 192nd. By comparison, the US had 54 in the top 200.
These rankings are consistent with other studies that show the abysmal contribution Muslim countries make to the world's scientific output. Some 20 years ago, a prominent Pakistani scientist and Nobel laureate, the late Abdus Salam, observed: "Of all civilisations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be over-emphasised since the honourable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age."
In the knowledge economy of the third industrial revolution, the creation of wealth will rely primarily on "brain industries". Scientific, technological and intellectual stagnation is therefore going to have far-reaching socioeconomic repercussions.
Several factors can account for this crisis, the most important being the meagre resources allocated by Muslim countries to research and development. On average, they spend 0.45 per cent of gross domestic product on R&D. Developed countries spend about 2.3 per cent. Another factor is a legacy of the colonialism experienced by most Muslim countries for an extended period in the past two centuries, during which their development was stalled by some of the excesses of racial and economic exploitation that they had to endure.
But the principal cause of their present predicament can also be attributed to prevailing cultural and political practices. In contrast, countries such as Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and India have taken notable strides in the fields of science and technology and are now among the major emerging economies.
Lack of funding can hardly justify the absence of good universities in resource-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which each reportedly earn $500 million (£290 million) a day from their oil exports alone.
And even as academic and administrative conditions in the public-sector universities have declined, the private sector has responded by establishing some well-resourced higher education institutions. This is illustrated by the establishment of the Aga Khan Medical University and Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan and Belkent University in Turkey.
Another factor that hinders the development of vibrant universities is the weak and undeveloped civil society common to all Muslim countries. To function well, civil society must have diverse non-governmental organisations and institutions of higher learning that are strong enough to counterbalance the power of the central institutions of the state, which tend to want to establish a monopoly over power and truth.
Furthermore, there is a new and growing obstacle. Muslim countries are increasingly coming under intense pressure from religious fundamentalist movements to impose epistemologies compatible with their versions of Islamic doctrines that are generally hostile to critical rational thought. This is stifling the development of conditions conducive to the development and growth of vibrant universities.
In my recent studies of contemporary Islamic consciousness in a number of Middle Eastern Muslim countries, I was struck by an all-pervasive sense of humiliation arising from the inability of the Arab countries to match the military and technological know-how of Israel. This was further reinforced by the economic power and absolute technological superiority of the West. This humiliation is a major underlying cause of Islamic militancy and terrorism.
A robust civil society is a prerequisite for the development of countries based not on the tyranny of strongly held convictions and beliefs but on a social order based on doubt and compromise. Science and technology prosper only under conditions that privilege the rule of reason and nature. The influence of religious fundamentalism is having deleterious effect on academic conditions, especially in the humanities and social sciences.
The intellectual stagnation of Muslim countries threatens to imprison a significant proportion of humanity in permanent servitude. There is a great urgency to create and nurture conditions promoting academic excellence and to develop strategies to arrest the decline of higher learning. Only this will ensure an honourable survival of future generations of Muslims. This is probably the greatest challenge facing the governments of Muslim countries today.
Riaz Hassan is an Australian Research Council professorial fellow and emeritus professor of sociology at Flinders University, Adelaide. His book Inside Muslim Minds: Understanding Islamic Consciousness will be published next year.