The majority of people in Australia, the United States, Britain and other developed capitalist countries rely on the corporate media for information about non-Western regions of the world. News and analyses about Islam and the Islamic world are presented mainly in the broader context of terrorism, political violence, border protection, and values that threaten ‘our way of life’. The Islamic faith, more so than any other monotheistic religion, is presented as a unique and irrational menace, incompatible with our ostensibly rational and democratic underpinnings. Islamic people in Western countries are smeared as a potentially treasonous element, refusing to integrate, and intent on taking advantage of our pluralistic values and democratic mechanisms to sabotage and eventually overwhelm ‘our’ western-liberal democratic values.
There are many examples of Islamic clerics issuing fatwas and condemnations of terrorism, too many to recite here. However, a simple experiment will suffice to bring us to the next point; Google searching has become an indispensable part of writing and blogging in this age of social media and electronic communication. Performing a Google-search of the term ‘Islam and terrorism’ produces 54,200,000 results. A large amount; but consider the following comparison – a Google-search of the terms ‘Islam and science’ produces 216,000,000 results. That’s right – two hundred and sixteen million, as compared to fifty-four million. The quality of the search results can be disputed: some are of doubtful veracity, some are not verified by peer research, some are openly partisan creationist web pages – all that is not in dispute.
The important point here is that the interaction between one of the world’s fastest growing religions and science is of such profound importance, much more so than the purportedly close relation between Islam and terrorism that the corporate media routinely suggests. The conflict between religion and science, its philosophical underpinnings and social implications, is the subject of much scholarly and journalistic research. This research is woefully ignored, swamped by the outpouring of Islamophobia that pervades much of our media and society. The debate between the philosophical platforms of secularism and religion has been poisoned by a political agenda that seeks to marginalise and demonise a segment of the population, with contemptible ridiculing headlines like this one a commonplace occurrence in the mainstream corporate media, in between the sports news and celebrity gossip.
Las Vegas is without doubt the gambling capital of the world, epitomising the expression of greed, gluttony, drunkenness and fornication. It stands as a towering rebuff to the old-fashioned biblical values of modesty, temperance and frugality. Yet only ten minutes drive from Las Vegas boulevard there is one structure that invites people to turn away from the sinful vanity of American casino-capitalism – the Masjeed-e Tawheed. The latest of four mosques in Las Vegas, it is home to 10 000 Muslims living in the Las Vegas vicinity. The mosque’s founder and leader is ‘Rocky’ – the nickname used by Ahmadullah Rokai Yusufzai, a successful immigrant who calls Sin City his home. After working with the Afghani mujahideen fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, Yusufzai was dismissed from his chosen profession as an engineer in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He now works as a court interpreter, helps train young Marine recruits who are being posted to Afghanistan, and volunteers as a soccer coach for the local team.
The Guardian newspaper covered his story in the article ‘Being Muslim in Las Vegas’, and is a humane portrait of a community struggling with issues of assimilation, identity, and maintaining their dignity in a country where the government agencies and media are hostile to their presence. Yusufzai faces criticism from other Muslims, opposed to the ongoing temptations that may lure people away from the Islamic values into the denizen of sin and corruption that is Las Vegas. As Yusufzai explains:
We are criticised by other Muslims. They’ll say, ‘You’re living in Sin City? You must have a gambling problem. You must be doing this and that.’ And we say, no. That’s what happens on the Strip, but two miles radius of that, there’s no casinos. It’s just suburbia, ordinary families trying to live decent, good lives. Most Muslims stay well away from the Strip. My house is about 15 miles away and it’s a different world. I see the lights way off in the distance
There is one mention of terrorism in the story:
The FBI visits him regularly to check up on what’s going down at the mosque and if he thinks any of the congregation, who range from doctors to taxi drivers, Somalis to Pakistanis, Sunni to Shia, might be terrorists intent on blowing up the nearest titty bar.
“I always tell the FBI guys that if there were, I’d be calling the FBI myself, but they still come by. We are trying to have a better image of Islam. We’re not going to harbour or support anybody who even thinks about that,” Yusufzai says.
Finally, a story about immigrants settling into a western country, a story that humanises its subjects and portrays the ongoing effort of Muslim immigrants to keep their faith while adapting to a frequently cultural inhospitable environment.
Read the whole story of being Muslim in Las Vegas in The Guardian newspaper here.
Science making a comeback
In January 2013, the Economist magazine online edition published a fascinating story, under the headline ‘The Road to Renewal’. It begins with a common accusation, namely, that the Muslim world is lagging behind the West in scientific development, and that this is reflected in the fact that the number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists of Jewish background far outnumbers the Muslim recipients of the Nobel Prize in the sciences:
The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79.
An interesting comparison, however, the article goes on to provide an overview of how science is making a big comeback, and indeed is an intricate part of, Muslim-majority countries. While it is true that the Islamic faith strongly influences the education system in Islamic countries, it is too simplistic to denounce the alleged scientific backwardness of Muslim-majority countries on the purportedly innately irrational perspective of Islam to scientific investigation. The article then provides a crucial observation:
But look more closely and two things are clear. A Muslim scientific awakening is under way. And the roots of scientific backwardness lie not with religious leaders, but with secular rulers, who are as stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.
The simplistic caricature of backward Muslims impeding scientific inquiry is easily dispelled by a cursory knowledge of Islamic history; the Islamic Golden Age, lasting between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, was a time of unrivaled scientific discoveries, accumulation and extension of mathematical knowledge, and expansion in all areas of science from astronomy to medicine throughout the Abbasid Caliphate, until the Mongol conquest of the centre of intellectual life, Baghdad in 1258. The Islamic empire provided fertile intellectual commerce for the West, while Europe was still languishing in the Christian-dominated Dark Ages. Let us not forget that Moorish Spain was another comparative beacon of light for the peoples of Europe at the time.
What is interesting is that the article in the Economist details the ongoing efforts by scientists and scientific researchers to reinvigorate their areas of expertise in the Muslim-majority countries. All areas of science and technology are experiencing a resurgence. Evolutionary biology is the one area where scientists of Muslim background struggle to reconcile their faith with their scientific work – just like their Christian counterparts. The barriers between scriptural acceptance and evolutionary biology are enormous, but not insurmountable. As the Economist article explains:
Plenty of Muslim biologists have managed to reconcile their faith and their work. Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist who converted to Islam, quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of genetics, saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Science describes how things change; Islam, in a larger sense, explains why, she says.
Others take a similar line. “The Koran is not a science textbook,” says Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist. “It provides people with guidelines as to how they should live their lives.” Interpretations of it, she argues, can evolve with new scientific discoveries. Koranic verses about the creation of man, for example, can now be read as providing support for evolution.
When looking at the way in which biologists in the Islamic world are grappling with the philosophical and scientific divides between faith-based belief and scientific understanding, one cannot help but see the similarities in the ways that Christians in the West are wrestling with exactly the same philosophical and cultural issues. So why is the Muslim world routinely derided as more fundamentalist, irrational and closed to rational thought that the supposedly more advanced Christian West?
In June 2011, the present author wrote a book review of ‘The Muslim Revolt: A journey through political Islam’ by BBC journalist Roger Hardy. The book examines the various political trajectories and social conflicts of political Islam in a number of Muslim-majority countries. The most officially secular of these countries, Turkey, constitutes a chapter in the book, where Hardy elaborated on the cultural tensions between secular education and Muslim identity. Taking a long quote from my book review, the following illustrates the tension between religious identity and science education that is being played out:
Hardy describes his visit to a state-run school, which is well furnished, adorned by a bust of Kemal Ataturk, and the slogan “Science is the true guide in life”. Hardy asked the biology teacher how she deals with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, who peremptorily responds that it is in the state-approved curriculum, and so she teaches it. Many in the Muslim world (like many Christians) refuse to accept the theory of evolution, and there is strong cultural resistance to it. Hardy then visits another school, known as an imam-hatip school. This type of school was originally intended to produce imams and hatips, religious preachers. Upon asking the head teacher in the second school how it differs from the original state school, Hardy obtains the response that the curriculum is exactly the same, except they add religious instruction.
Hardy persists with his questioning, and asks how they handle the theory of evolution in the school. The head teacher says he disagrees with evolution, but teaches it anyway according to the curriculum. The students in the school then learn about Islamic philosophy, and how God created the world according to religious precepts. This underlying kulturkampf – culture-struggle is the word Hardy uses – is occurring throughout the Muslims world, and has familiar undertones in the West. We are undergoing our own kulturkampf, with the creationist/intelligent design lobby to push for strict biblical inerrancy to be taught in schools. The struggle is far from over. The creation-evolution controversy is hardly confined to the Muslim countries, and is being played out in Turkey paralleling the similar debates in Christian-influenced Europe, Australia and the United States.
Returning to the article from the Economist, there is one area of the life sciences where the Islamic countries are rapidly progressing, while Christian-majority countries are still bogged down in acrimonious debate: stem cell research. According to Islamic precepts, the soul enters the fetus between 40 and 120 days after conception. Embryos discarded before that time period are the source of pluripotent stem cells derived from the blastocyst. Scientists in the Islamic Republic of Iran have been making enormous strides in stem cell research, and have compiled a stem cell database bank. All this medical research is occurring while in the United States, scientists and legislators have had to battle Christian fundamentalist lawmakers and conservative advocates using their political clout to hinder, and in some cases completely ban, research using pluripotent stem cells. Biologists in Iran working on stem cell research do not face any official roadblocks or legislative censure, and are working on finding cures for diseases once considered incurable.
Tim Wallace-Murphy is an English writer and historian, and author of the book ‘What Islam did for us: Understanding Islam’s contribution to Western Civilization’. After exploring the enormous dependence of European culture on the contributions of Islam, the last chapter is entitled ‘A Common Heritage and Future’. Wallace-Murphy makes the observation we must stop regarding the Muslim world as one gigantic petrol station, inhabited by strange people with backward beliefs. He continues:
Our elected representatives in the West are our elected servants and not our masters. They should not have the freedom to initiate wars of aggression without the consent of the people they serve. Nor should they be permitted to prop up repressive regimes purely for commercial advantage. Trade is always to be encouraged, the subsidy of tyranny should be forbidden.
We must go further and denounce the harassment and intimidation of Arab and Muslim Australians. We in Australia must stop normalising relations with repressive regimes and countries that continue to persecute their citizens, or carry out wars of aggression against the Arab and Muslim people. When the current Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, shakes hands with the Burmese President Thein Sein joining the onrush by imperialist nations to develop economic ties with that country, and when newly-reinstalled Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declares that Israel is in his DNA, it sends a clear signal to the world that Australia stands with the imperialist countries in ignoring human rights and joining the oppression of Palestinians, Rohingya Muslims and other marginalised people in the world, in order to extend commercial interests. It is time to make human solidarity the main criterion by which we evaluate our political and economic conduct.