Advocating an Arab Aggiornamento

Reforms Outlined to Help Islamic Culture Open Up to the Modern World

NEW YORK, NOV. 15, 2003 ( On Oct. 20 the United Nations Development Program published its second Arab Human Development Report. Subtitled “Building a Knowledge Society,” the report revealed that Arab countries urgently need to invest in education and foment intellectual activity if they want to avoid worsening a growing knowledge gap.

The UNDP emphasized that scholars from the Arab world prepared the report. Preparation involved a cooperative process involving nearly 40 authors and 30 advisers and peer reviewers, from a diversity of backgrounds in the Arab countries.

The report revealed a series of factors contributing to the knowledge deficit facing Arab countries.

— Many children still do not have access to basic education, and the report notes, “Higher education is characterized by decreasing enrollment, and public spending on education has actually declined since 1985.” The report added: “The most important challenge facing Arab education is its declining quality.”

— Fewer than one in 20 Arab university students are pursuing scientific disciplines, while South Korea the figure is one in five.

— There is an almost total absence of advanced research in fields such as information technology and molecular biology. Moreover, state spending on research and development does not exceed 0.2% of gross national product.

— Arab countries have an estimated 371 research scientists and engineers per million citizens, compared with a global rate of 979 per million.

— Arab nations also suffer a continual brain drain, as large numbers of professionals emigrate to the West. Between 1998 and 2000, for example, more than 15,000 Arab doctors migrated abroad.

— Access to digital media is among the lowest in the world. There are just 18 computers per 1,000 people in the region, compared with the global average of 78.3 computers. Only 1.6% of the Arab population has Internet access, compared with 68% in the United Kingdom and 79% in the United States.

— As for traditional media, there are fewer than 53 newspapers sold per 1,000 Arab citizens, compared with 285 papers per 1,000 people in developed countries. In most Arab countries the media operate in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of expression. “Journalists face illegal harassment, intimidation and even physical threats, censorship is rife, and newspapers and television channels are sometimes arbitrarily closed down,” stated the report. Moreover, most radio and television stations are state-owned.

— The number of books translated, an important factor behind the transfer of knowledge, is extremely low. No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium, a sum equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year.

— Indigenous book production is also scanty. Arabs constitute 5% of the world population, yet they produce only 1% of the world’s books, and 17% of this production is accounted for by religious books, compared with 5% in the rest of the world. In 1996, for example, Arab countries produced no more than 1,945 literary and artistic books — 0.8% of world production — despite a readership of 280 million in the 22 Arab countries.

— The report also identified a “severe crisis” in the teaching of Arabic. This involves a growing neglect of the functional aspects, with a deterioration of language skills. According to the report, Arabic language classes are often restricted to writing at the expense of reading. And classical Arabic “has in effect ceased to be a spoken language.”

Hostile to modern culture

Apart from economic and political causes that hinder education in Arab countries, the report also deals with the hostility of some elements in Islam to modernity that have led to rejection of contemporary knowledge and progress.

In the past, Arab countries were home to a flourishing intellectual culture, the report observes. Arab intellectuals were instrumental in preserving and translating many works of classical Greek scholarship, which would otherwise have been lost to Europe. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Arab world opened itself up to science and literature coming from the Western world.

But more recently, the report comments, “political developments in the region and the absence of peaceful and effective political channels for dealing with injustices in the Arab world have pushed some Islamic clerics to give precedence to political aims over the cultural or social objectives of Islam.”

As well, some countries have witnessed an alliance between repressive political regimes and conservative religious scholars that “has resulted in some interpretations of Islam that are inimical to free enquiry and the pursuit of rational knowledge.”

The authors of the report consider that such groups are “not representative of the authentic Arab culture.” And the report calls for religion and education “to be freed from political influence and that of radical movements.”

The report also had criticism for Western countries. It noted that following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a number of countries have adopted security measures that have often made it difficult for Arabs and Muslims to study and travel abroad. Cultural exchanges were also interrupted. The report cited data from Arab missions that indicate the number of Arab students in the United Stated in 2002 had fallen 30% since 1999.

The five pillars

The report calls for overcoming both the closing off by the West and the tendency of some elements within Arab countries to reject all foreign culture. “The truth is that Arab culture has no choice but to engage again in a new global experiment,” the report says.

As part of the solution to the knowledge deficit the report proposes a reform based on “the five pillars of an Arab knowledge society.” They are:

— Guaranteeing the key freedoms of opinion, speech and assembly through good governance bounded by the law. The report affirms that a climate of freedom is an essential prerequisite of the knowledge society.

— The full dissemination of high quality education. The report calls for basic education to be universal and extended to 10 years. It recommends that special attention be paid to early childhood learning and to creating a system for lifelong learning.

— Promoting homegrown science and research and development, and joining the Information Revolution. The report calls for research to be encouraged through funding and institutions. Arab governments should also establish networks linking public, private and international sectors.

— Shifting rapidly toward knowledge-based and value-added production. This means developing knowledge and technological capabilities and diversifying economic structures and markets.

— Developing an authentic, broad-minded and enlightened Arab knowledge model. The report calls for “delivering pure religion from political exploitation and respecting independent scholarship.” It also recommends reclaiming the intellectual strengths of Arab cultural heritage; promoting cultural diversity in the region; and opening up to other cultures abroad.

Putting into practice these goals will not be easy in the current political context. After independence, notes the report, “most Arab countries came under national political regimes that represented little advance on the autocratic style of ancient and more recent history.” As a result, social and individual freedoms have been restricted. Moreover, with many economies dependent on oil production and exportation, little value is given to culture and education.

The report concludes by calling for an opening up, based on “an intelligent and generous exchange with non-Arab cultures and civilizations.” As the world has learned the hard way in recent years, success or failure in this task will affect both Arab and non-Arab countries.

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