Can science diplomacy help strengthen the Muslim world?

Princess Sumaya of Jordan: "The Muslim world must learn to cooperate better"

A key element of the new interest in science diplomacy has been the effort, particularly by the US administration, to improve relations with the countries of the Middle East and the Muslim world.

These efforts to use scientific agreements as a central strategy in so-called “soft diplomacy” were highlighted in a speech delivered in Cairo last year by newly elected President Barack Obama who promised a new era of cooperation with the region.

The optimism of that speech has since faded, partly because follow-up is still awaited. But many remain sympathetic to the idea that building a strong scientific and technological base in the region would not only increase the economic strength of Muslim countries, but also have broader cultural and political implications.

One of the strongest protagonists of this view is Pakistani-born Princess Sumaya of Jordan, who plays an highly active role as president of the country’s Royal Scientific Society based in Amman.

In an address to the Wilton Park meeting on science diplomacy that was both thoughtful and passionate, she presented a vision of how promoting science and technology — a task that she admitted benefitted from external support — could bring both peace and prosperity to the region.

Princess Sumaya used her speech to make vigorous criticism of the way, too often in the Muslim world, scientific leaders had a tendency to focus their efforts on building and controlling their own power bases, rather than seeing their role as part of a global scientific community.

“We Arabs have a demon within us who calls for the biggest and the brightest, a demon that appeals to us to build an edifice that will put the neighbours in the shade,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do little to work together.”

Multilateralism was not a great strength in the Arab world; indeed it was hardly a reality. But it was important for countries in the region to learn to collaborate on science and technology, just as European countries had done to boost their technological innovation.

“Our resource-rich countries must work with talent-rich, but resource-poor, economies for the benefit of all,” Princess Sumaya said. “Spreading opportunities across the Arab world will stem our debilitating brain-drain and help to create a sustainable and productive environment for all our populations.”

A similar plea had come on the previous day from Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who described how the members of his organisation were committed to promoting science and technology to enhance the well-being of the Muslim world.

Keen to challenge the idea that the transfer of scientific knowledge was primarily a West-to-East affair, he pointed out that, in the seventeenth century, the English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon had acknowledged that many key inventions – such as printing, gunpowder and the compass – had come from the Muslim world.

Ihsanoglu, a historian of science by profession, complained that Islamic contributions to science and knowledge were in danger of being overlooked as a result of campaigns of “Islamophobia” that sought to demonise the principles and values of Islamic culture.

At the same time he reminded participants that, although science diplomacy had proved to be useful in forging partnerships in fields such as education and agriculture, they should not forget that its ultimate aim – like that of more conventional forms of diplomacy – was to further a country’s interests and wider political goals.

Princess Sumaya issued a similar warning in slightly more colourful terms. “Soft power is a desirable tool for diplomacy, considering the other options available to all sides, but achieving one’s goals through co-option and attraction is only truly sustainable if we all want similar, sustainable outcomes.

“The design and exercise of soft power by the West is, to a large extent, predetermined by cultural values, political institutions and even the demands of the electoral cycle,” she stressed. “If clear, universal goals are not agreed upon, then soft power too can seem antagonistic, to be dismissed by opposing ideologues as the velvet glove of international relations.”

David Dickson,
Director, SciDev.Net

2 Responses to Can science diplomacy help strengthen the Muslim world?

  1. Dileep V. Sathe says:

    Science can not survive on non-scientific factors like diplomacy. Diplomacy, in turn, is guided by religion. So concerned people have to decide whether they want to improve science or relation among various people. Science works on experiments and preaches objective thinking. Therefore it permits questioning great people like Issac Newton and Albert Einstein. This is not permitted in religion and it favors subjective think only. Therefore I do not call my contribution in physics education as the Hindu science – though I am a born Hindu. I have very high respect for Prof. Abdus Salam because he was an outstanding leader of physics – but not because he was a muslim. See my comment: Abdus Salam’s receptivity – on… I have seen for 55 years, religion is used to divide people emotionally and so do not approve of terms like Christian or Muslim or Hindu science. So I do not think that the science diplomacy will be effective in the long run.

  2. Noreen Qureshi says:

    Interesting post. I hadn’t realized that the lack of good cooperation relationships between Muslim-majority countries was such a strong contributing factor to their communities’ low scientific progress. I do feel that US science diplomacy towards Muslim-majority countries is a politically-based program and this leads me to believe that it will only be a short-term project. It will be up to the Muslim-majority countries themselves to learn to work together to achieve the long-term goals they are looking for in science.

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