Human Development in the Arab World: Islam Is Blocking Progress

By Perkins, John L. | Free Inquiry, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Human Development in the Arab World: Islam Is Blocking Progress


Perkins, John L., Free Inquiry


What motivates so-called Islamic terrorism? Commonly cited factors include resurgent fundamentalism, a sense of injustice due to the Palestinian situation, and discontent arising from the relative social and economic deprivation experienced by Muslim countries, especially in the Arab world. The stark nature of these problems has been depicted recently in the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR 2003), produced by a group of Arab specialists for the United Nations Development Programme. This is a follow-up of a similar report made in 2002, the second of an expected four reports. The current report highlights the difficulties in producing a "knowledge society" in Arab countries and mentions in a guarded way the role of Islam in the Arab world's social, political, and economic difficulties.

The report conveys some alarming statistics. In Arab countries, the quality of higher education is declining and enrollment is down. Public spending on education has declined since 1985. Expenditure on research and development is a tiny 0.2 percent of GNP, and there is a "political and social context inimical to the development of science." The number of scientists and engineers per capita is a third of the world average. The number of computers per capita is a quarter of the global average. The number of newspapers published per capita is a fifth of that of developed countries, and the little news that is disseminated is controlled and restricted. The few books that are published are censored, and the proportion of religious books produced is three times the world average. The number of books translated into Spanish each year is one thousand times the number translated into Arabic.

On the subject of religion, the authors suggest that oppressive regimes and conservative religious scholars have colluded to produce "certain interpretations of Islam" that represent "serious impediments to human development, particularly when it comes to freedom of thought, accountability of the ruling authorities, and women's participation in public life." Blaming tyrants and extremists may be a convenient option; unfortunately, the problem runs much deeper than that, as the authors may realize. In their call to "reclaim Arab knowledge," a reference to the preeminence that Arabs enjoyed in scientific knowledge from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, the authors define a quest to build a knowledge-based society where "knowledge diffusion, production and application become the organizing principle in all aspects of human activity: culture, society, the economy, politics and private life."

This seemingly mundane aspiration is in fact a profoundly subversive concept in Muslim Arabic society. This is because Islam, rather than knowledge, is currently fervently held to be the "organizing principle" in all the aspects of human activity mentioned. Implicit but unstated in this aspiration is the need, at least in part, to replace Islam with knowledge. The authors are no doubt unwilling or unable to state such a message explicitly for fear of adopting a position that may be said to be "anti-Islam." Rather, they suggest that the quest for knowledge is compatible with Islam and can no doubt refer to a Qur'anic text for apparent support in this.

Here lies tire problem, Inherent in the quest for knowledge, in the scientific method itself, is the expression of doubt. But in Islam doubt is forbidden. That this is the real beginning of the problem can be seen in the authors' treatment of the education system, which like other aspects of socialization falls "short of the epistemological and social environment necessary for knowledge production." The major reason for this, unstated by the authors, is that religious and Qur'anic studies form a significant and compulsory part of primary, and secondary education in all Arab countries, including the so-called secular ones. This is the major cause of what the report describes as children's "passive attitudes" and "hesitant decision making skills," impairing children's thinking skills by "suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative. …

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