Today's date:
Fall 2013

A Jihad for Education

Ahmed Zewail was awarded the 1999 Nobel prize in chemistry for developing the femtoscope, which photographs the actual moment of molecular binding of chemicals. Born and raised in Egypt, he is now a naturalized American citizen who holds the Linus Pauling Professorship at the California Institute of Technology. He spoke with NPQ in 2003.

NPQ | You are the only Arab to ever win a Nobel prize for science and, since the death of the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, the only one among the 1.2 billion Muslims with that honor.

What accounts for this scientific slumber of the Muslim Arab world and the consequent economic gap with the West and East Asia? Does it have anything to do with civilizational reasons—the fact that faith and reason remain fused in the Islamic world, thus hobbling science?

AHMED ZEWAIL | It is too simplistic to say that there is a singular cause—for example, the lack of separation of faith and reason—for why the Muslim Arab world fell into scientific slumber just as the Christian world woke up.

From a genetic point of view, Muslim Arabs are no different from anyone else. Historically, of course, Arabs and Muslims in Spain and Arabia were at the peak of their civilization when so-called Christian Europe was in the Dark Ages. No doubt without the Arab scholarly works and translations from Greek philosophy to their original work in astronomy, European development might not have taken place for another 500 years.

What is more important is the modern history of what happened to the Arab world. During the time of Muhammad Ali only 200 years ago, Egypt was in such a strong position that the Japanese and Koreans at the time studied how its economy worked.

What happened in the last century? First of all, there was colonization, which by definition installed a class and caste system of the governing elite from or allied with the outside, with all the clubs and prestige, for example, of the British Empire, and then a huge population of illiterate peasants.

General illiteracy reached 50 percent. For women it was as high as 80 percent. With that level of illiteracy as colonization ended after the Second World War, what did the Arab countries do? They looked first West, then East, to the superpowers for help. And when they didn’t get anywhere in terms of economic development, after the Cold War, knowing the geography of humanity, there was only one other place left to look—up. And that search for answers has been exploited by some to politicize faith and religion.

It goes without saying that the developing world can’t just sit there in stagnation and not help itself. I’m critical of that as well. But in addressing the gap, you can’t fail to bear in mind this history which has created large populations of frustrated people who don’t have jobs or opportunities.

Worse, even a big fraction of young college graduates today doesn’t have jobs. What do they do then? All that energy goes into fanatcism and violence. And, unlike the rest of world facing a silver wave, the Arab world is facing a youth wave: Most of the population is under 30.

So, this business of conflict of civilizations is a slogan. It sells well, but more important are the political and economic forces that lead to religious fanaticism.

NPQ | Wouldn’t it help if Allah met Galileo in the Muslim Arab world? The scholar Ibn Rochd tried to bring reason together with faith in the 12th century, but that has been eclipsed since. Since revelation still rules over reason, the scientific mentality has been unable to take hold.

ZEWAIL | I don’t believe the state of affairs in the Muslim world today is because of religious boundaries in the mind. What I do believe is that the economic situation and the frustrations that exist among the population, fed by ill education, are creating unenlightened groups that use religion for their own purposes and put down the pursuit of scientific knowledge. And this despite the first “surah” (injunction) in the Koran—read.

NPQ | Indeed, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that it is not Islam that stands in the way of development, but the politicized ulamas who argue that knowledge is only about studying the Koran, not about science and technology from the West.

ZEWAIL | Mahathir is right, and he is the leader who has made Malaysia an exception as a mostly modernized Muslim country. It is not religion that blocks development, but the lack of education and development that leads to the political use of religion. That in turn impedes the advance of the scientific mind among Muslims.

I was very fortunate, personally. I had a very good job after graduation. With 20 Egyptian pounds I lived very well. I could go to the theater, I could go out. Then I got a fellowship from America to come and get my education. So at least I could see light. I could see hope.

If I were young today, life would be far more difficult and, being from the Arab world, America would probably not take me as a student because it suspects terror links. What do you think I would do then? One option is that I would join an underground group that would offer me a better opportunity. Whatever my doctrine or the ideology, this option—perhaps the only one—wouldn’t sound bad to me.

NPQ | So modern education and jobs are key to turning everything around?

ZEWAIL | Yes, but the problem today goes even deeper to the very meaning of literacy. With the youth population explosion, illiteracy in modern science and technology has also increased enormously. Think of the gap that creates. Already 10 years ago we had a box on the Caltech application form marked “literacy”—meaning computer literacy!

NPQ | The Bush administration’s view is that only by bringing democratization to the Arab world can there then be economic development. Do you agree with that?

ZEWAIL | Let me give you the naive scientist’s view. We divide science into two major categories—theory and experiment. The Bush plan sounds good in theory, but in the experiment of practical life, it is proving very difficult.

China, after all, is progressing tremendously, and it isn’t a Western-style democracy. South Korea also was not a democracy when its growth began to take off. Democracy came later.

My experience is that an outsider can never “impose” democracy on a society. The outsider is always the foreign occupier, always the foreign invader.

To democratize, the firelight has to be kindled from within these countries. That fire, no matter how feeble at first, can only be lit with new educational institutions, beneficial trade agreements—look at what liberal trade agreements have done since the end of World War II for Japan, Korea and the rest of Asia—and economic growth. Those are the horses that will pull the cart of democracy, not the other way around.

And, finally, there has to be political fairness. The double standard of American foreign policy in the region hurts. People remember how the United States supported Muslim fanatics in Afghanistan to get rid of communism only to turn against them. With respect to Israel, as has often been said, most Arabs feel their concerns are not taken into consideration. Indeed, the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the greatest dissipator of energy across the region.

One of the greatest contributions to development would be an Israeli-Palestinian peace that would localize the issue and withdraw it from the front of everybody’s mind across the whole Muslim world. Then energy would not be so distracted and dissipated, and people could focus on education and the economy.

NPQ | What about the Arab world’s responsibility for itself?

ZEWAIL | Without doubt, we have to get our own house in order first. The word I probably use most often when talking with the best and brightest young people around the Arab world is discipline. If the fundamentals are there—literacy and job opportunity—a discipline and focused energy like you see in Asia can make the economy take off.

Again I come back to a reality: the Israeli-Palestinian issue dissipates so much energy. You don’t have that kind of issue in Asia, so their minds and imaginations are less clouded.

NPQ | What can be done, then, to get started down the path of economic development in the Arab and Muslim world?

ZEWAIL | We need, in effect, an “education jihad”—a campaign among all the Muslim countries to strive for excellence in literacy and education in modern science. I have spoken with Dr. Mahathir, truly a visionary leader, about this. I agree with Mahathir that the early Muslims were great scholars who excelled in math and the sciences and that today we must raise to the level of “jihad” this quest for learning once again.

Incidentally, the word “jihad,” which is so often misunderstood, is used in general to mean excelling by struggling. And, as in all activities, if you are threatened, you struggle by all means.

Practically, the best way to regain self-confidence is to start “centers of excellence” in science and technology in each Muslim country to show it can be done, to show that Muslims can indeed compete in today’s globalized economy and to instill in youth the desire for learning. You can’t take on all schools and universities at once among a Muslim population of 1.2 billion, with 300 million in the Arab world alone. But you can create four or five indigenous prototypes in each country to show the way.

At the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in October, this proposal will be put forward. I am personally committed to working toward the establishment of these centers.

Now, with the Internet, ambitious young people in Egypt or Morocco can go to the Internet cafes and see what is going on in Los Angeles or Kuala Lumpur—or even Qatar, which now has a GDP per capita close to the US’—but they can’t seem to get it themselves. That feeds their frustration. When we can convert that frustration into positive energy, there will be hope for the young Arab Muslims who now see a different future.