The Pakistan prime minister [Imran Khan] has his own ideas of what ails Muslim societies. Last week, he held an online discussion on ‘Islam, society and ethical values’, with scholars from various countries participating. The conversation was telecast on national television. The credentials of some of the participants cannot be disputed. Yet the discourse was hardly illuminating and had little to do with the real challenges the Muslim world is confronting and the causes for its backwardness.
For the prime minister, corruption and rising sex crimes are the two chief evils in the Muslim world. His major worry revolves around how the youth can be protected from the “invasion of social media on their faith and religious and ethical values”. He stressed the need to save young Muslims from being “inundated with obscenity and pornographic material available on the internet”. The scholars seemed to agree that Muslim youth should be taught how to deal with the challenges of modern life.
That discourse sounded surreal given the nature of the problems faced by Muslim-majority countries. The prime ministerial observations and questions during the discussion revealed a narrow world outlook. In fact, such views can be taken as symptomatic of all that has caused the backwardness of Muslim countries. The real issue, as Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol has described it, is the “reopening of Muslim minds”. It’s about turning to reason, freedom, tolerance and enlightenment.
But last week’s discussion did not address the questions about why the Muslim world lags far behind on all social and economic development indicators. Obscurantism only accentuates our backwardness. The youth, which now comprise the majority of the Muslim world’s population, need education, freedom of expression and thinking that can equip them to compete with the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim world is less free than the rest of the world. Most Muslim-majority countries have the lowest level of religious freedom. There are astonishing differences between them and non-Muslim countries in education, employment and other human development indices. The poor level of academic achievement in Muslim countries is shocking. The Muslim world appears to be the worst in terms of academic and educational contributions, and produces few scientists, engineers and technicians compared to non-Muslim countries.
The Muslim world consists of almost a quarter of the world population and is rich in natural resources but suffers from illiteracy, poverty, high unemployment rates and extreme economic inequality. Much of it is far behind the major industrial and even some developing countries in the field of economics, politics, education, technology, etc.
The backwardness in science is evident. The widening gap between Muslim and Western countries in education and science and technology is illustrated by the fact that only three scientists hailing from Muslim-majority countries have won the Nobel Prize: two in chemistry and one in physics. One of them is Dr Abdus Salam of Pakistan who was ostracised because of his faith. In fact, their success in research came via Western universities and not the local education system.
All this shows the poor level of scientific education in the Muslim world with its combined population of almost two billion people. According to one report some years ago, 46 Muslim countries together contributed just one per cent of the world’s scientific literature. India contributed more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries combined. A diminishing interest in the scientific disciplines is a primary reason behind this descent into backwardness.
Moreover, an outdated education system has resulted in mediocre performance and poor educational attainment. That has been the major reason for the Muslim countries falling behind all other nations in modern education, particularly in science and technology. Creative pursuits are often discouraged in the name of faith with damaging consequences for the creative potential of the people.
Ignorance and closed minds prevent any progress. But for our leadership, it’s all about the negative impact of the social media and how to protect our youth from it. The greatest worry is the ‘spread of obscenity’ in society. This is reflective of an obscurantist mindset that has been responsible for taking the country downhill. The new education policy and the Single National Curriculum are manifestations of the same retrogressive worldview. This system discourages any creative thinking and scientific education. That will further widen the gap.
Given our huge youth bulge, we need a more progressive outlook in order to equip the young generation with better scientific and technological knowledge. But unfortunately, it seems that modern education is anathema for our prime minister, himself a product of the Western education system. The policy of the PTI government can only encourage regressive elements in society.
Instead of focusing on providing modern skills to the young generation that could make it more productive, a doctrinal approach has been emphasised, with potentially damaging effects for the entire education system. There is a danger of religious authorities determining what should be taught even in institutions of higher learning. This is a troubling situation for the young generation. Rather than encouraging scientific and empirical thinking, the prime minister seems to be more interested in engaging in theological and dogmatic discussions.
Interestingly, the discussion with the Islamic scholars had been organised by the newly formed Rehmatul-lil-Aalameen Authority, as part of his effort to build a ‘Riyasat-i-Madina’. The authority is also to monitor the country’s education system and the media to see whether they are conforming to Islamic values. It has also been tasked to work towards the ‘character-building’ of the youth. A number of questions are raised about the objectives of the authority that is headed by a highly controversial individual whose credentials as a scholar are questionable.
There is certainly a need for a constructive dialogue with religious scholars but it should be with the purpose of highlighting the true sprit of Islam that encourages knowledge wherever it comes from. A regressive interpretation of faith will be highly damaging.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow. Views are personal.
This article was originally published in Dawn, and has been republished here with permission.