Ahmad Khan, Special to Gulf News 05/31/2007 09:53 PM
Writing in the Financial Times about the World Islamic Economic Forum held in Malaysia, the prime minister of that dynamic Muslim country, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has observed that development is not simply an issue of income levels, good housing and adequate health facilities; it must also mean a literate and informed society. He has also reminded the Muslim world that 31 of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference are classified among the least developed nations. He has rightly cited this development deficit as a major cause of violence and turmoil that afflict a number of Muslim countries at present.
Addressing a similar gathering, a couple of weeks earlier, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced the establishment of a foundation with a $10 billion endowment to help build a knowledge-based society in the region. This was one of the foremost initiatives being launched in the Arab-Islamic world to close the knowledge gap.
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report put together a few years ago had argued that the Arab region possessed the resources to eradicate poverty in less than a generation and that political commitment, not resources, was the binding constraint.
Recently the GCC states' GDP was estimated at $750 billion. The MENA region continues to post substantial current account surpluses. Shaikh Mohammad's unveiling of the plan for a new foundation marks a happy convergence of resources and political will which will have to be replicated in Muslim societies stretching, as the Malaysian prime minister said, from Morocco to Mindanao. All of them need to invest more and more resources in non-traditional security. The pan-Arab outlook of the Dubai plan also shows a deep awareness that the macro region must overcome disparities of development in it as its peace and stability remain indivisible.
Time has not stood still and most Muslim countries have made considerable progress in combating mass illiteracy. What must be identified as the Achilles' heel today is the slow development of centres of excellence devoted to education and research at the highest level, especially the cutting edge of science and technology. They are the key to the kind of renaissance that the Malaysian prime minister had in mind when he wrote the above mentioned article.
Several non-Arab Muslim countries have been battling with their own constraints in creating knowledge-based societies.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Muslim analysts have agreed that their great civilisation that once pioneered modern learning declined largely because its centres of intellectual excellence were destroyed by the Christian reconquest of Spain and the Mongol invasion of the Arab heartland.
Political setbacks strengthened forces of orthodoxy and the Arab spirit of free inquiry stagnated. The Muslim empires of Moghul India, Safavid Iran and the Ottomans created civilisations of great sophistication and cultural richness but did not recover the lost momentum of scientific and technological studies.
In the Asian context, India and China have in recent years successfully journeyed to the stage where universities and other institutes of advanced learning begin to create knowledge and not merely impart it. Both of them have demonstrated a remarkable ability to assimilate Western knowledge to their own needs and then build upon it.
The Arab-Islamic world has to compress a similar transformation into a relatively short period of time. Strengthening of national institutions should be accompanied by proactive international cooperation.
First and foremost, there should be close networking by Arab centres of learning and research to expand the Arab intellectual elite.
Secondly, there should be a reinforced second concentric ring of intellectual interaction with other Muslim states. Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia can make a significant contribution to the planned regeneration of knowledge.
Third, Asian nations like China, Japan and India are natural partners in this common endeavour.
Fourth, Russia is another country looking for meaningful contacts with the Muslim world.
Fifth, no less importantly, the Muslim world has to ensure that historical interaction with the West does not wither away because of the growing tendency there to frame world politics as an open ended conflict between Islam and western civilisation.
Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former foreign secretary and ambassador of Pakistan.
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