What Is the "Versailles of the Muslims Nations"?

The Arab world manifests a marked resistance against globalisation processes. Islam scholar Sonja Hegasy compares science and technology in the Arab world and in the West, highlighting the differences

photo: private
According to the findings of Sonja Hegasy, the enemies of globalisation processes only wind up depriving themselves of power

​​Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, some corners of the Arab world reacted to the events with admiration, something the West found difficult to comprehend: Were Arab citizens really dancing in the streets with malicious glee? A discussion of whether or not the images shown of dancing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were genuine revealed that, while the images were in fact recorded after the attacks, their constant repetition on CNN led viewers to perceive a distorted picture of the Arab reaction to the attacks.

Were we now finally witnessing the 'clash of civilizations'? Or were the victims of violence and expulsion in the region simply expressing their hope for greater empathy and sympathy for their plight?

The thesis pursued in the following is that these reactions to the attacks can be traced to the fact that large sections of the Arab world feel excluded from participation in globalisation processes. One can find ample evidence to support this position, as American political scientist Richard Falk explains in his paper "False Universalism and the Geopolitics of Exclusion", an indispensable contribution to our understanding of September 11. At the same time, this point of view can also lead to self-exclusion in the fields of science and culture, since the Arab world's own impact on western culture is left out of the equation.

It is vital to understand that what was admired about September 11 was not the terrorist mass murder, but rather the perfection with which the act was executed and the impact of the imagery in the media, i.e. the command of so-called western technologies. The tactical brilliance that, whether consciously or sub-consciously, no observer could fail to notice, and that in Europe led to certain intellectual faux pas, for once included the Arab world, even if only for one brief moment.

Deceptively integrated into the Western world

The Arab world could not fail to acknowledge that the elite students had been successful in their studies in the West and had obviously been able to master western technologies. Men from their midst had managed to integrate themselves into the western world so successfully that they were referred to as "sleepers".

The exaggerated rejection of everything western is the flip side of the desire for integration and participation in the tantalizing promise of the modern world and even in the American Way of Life, as can readily be discerned from Arab popular culture. Arab admiration for the terrorists was coupled with expressions of inferiority: thus it was emphasized again and again that Osama Ben Laden could not possibly be responsible, since Muslims have no access to the necessary technologies.

The technological innovations of the 20th century have provoked mistrust and uncertainty not only in societies influenced by Islam. All over the world science is perceived as a phenomenon that, in Hobsbawm's analysis, gives rise to four emotional variants: science is seen as incomprehensible; its practical (as well as moral) consequences are unpredictable and probably catastrophic; science fosters the helplessness of the individual and undermines authority; and science by its very nature is dangerous, since it intervenes in the natural order of things.

The West as both a model and a warning

These kinds of fears are grounded quite rationally in the use and misuse of the achievements of modern science in the 20th century. They go hand in hand with a faith in progress and blind trust in the improvement of the quality of life afforded by modern technologies. The West functions here as both a model and a warning; western technology and the globalisation it demands have the potential both to emancipate and to subjugate.

If one follows the debate on globalisation in the Arab world, one soon realizes that it is by no means only the Islamic fundamentalists who view globalisation as exclusion from world society.

Political scientist Martin Beck from Tübingen justifies the resistance of the national elites against the globalisation process as a rational decision, since they view this stance as a way of securing their position of power. If their countries were to participate more fully in the system of globalisation (democratization of information, technology and finances), they would have to forfeit their own hegemony.

Below the elite level, however, there are societal groups that are adversely affected by this negative decision, which does not represent a rational option for their needs: for natural and social scientists, isolation from a free flow of information or an open dialog leads to marginalization, which in turn weakens their own position. Their research can only to a limited extent build upon worldwide findings. Their own discoveries and theories are rarely discussed in international forums and hence have few opportunities for commentary or correction, let alone dissemination.

Technology entails the transfer of knowledge

Discourse on the incorporation of modern technologies as one of the three core pillars of globalisation is inextricably tied up with issues of identity, self-determination and demarcation, because science and research are cultural learning processes. Innovations depend not only on the available research resources, but equally upon the sociocultural environment from which they emerge.

Technology transfer entails not only sales of certain equipment and machines, but first and foremost the transfer of knowledge. With it come people who must communicate this knowledge and who bring their own values with them. Therefore, the foreign engineers who work in Saudi oil refineries are every bit as much a thorn in the side of the Arab leaders as are the American soldiers with their military priests and rabbis who have been stationed in Saudi Arabia ever since the second Gulf War.

The debate on science, globalisation and technology transfer is usually premised upon a sociocentric understanding of technology, i.e. society forms technology and technology forms society. Ali Eddin Hillal Dessouki thus concluded that technology is a social product that cannot be transported from one society to another. Consequently, one should not speak of 'technology transfer', but rather of 'technology adaptation'. Essential for a successful transfer of modern technologies, in his view, are more informal forms of transfer such as conferences, publications or exchanges between scientists and experts.

Historic developmental impediments

With Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798, the country experienced its first confrontation with the modern European and worldwide knowledge market. Johannes Reissner reminds us that "Muslim thinking always bears this episode of foreign rule in mind, (while) it is rarely taken into consideration in the usual western discourse on Islam".

The military and technological superiority of the industrializing states, their aggressive expansionist tendencies and the need to cope with sociocultural challenges have led to a constant battle with European representatives from science, culture and politics. In his book "Science and Science Policy in the Arab World" Lebanese physicist Antoine Zahlan describes how, ever since the invasion of Napoleon, a collective feeling of inferiority has become firmly fixed:

"Whereas the population of the region had had an unrealistic view of Ottoman power before the Napoleonic invasion, they soon developed a feeling of inferiority towards the West. This sense of helplessness and dependence continues to grow the more individual Arab states seek modernity and the deeper the military and economic failures. For whether it is jet fighters, petrochemical complexes, sport arenas, hospital or harbours, Arab governments today know of only one way to get them: through turnkey projects with foreign international firms."

Zahlan names six constants that have characterized technology transfer from Napoleon's invasion till today: first, the rapidity with which technocrats decide in favor of importing capital goods, and the haltingness with which local research institutes are established to accompany this process; second, decisions based on the personal predilections of national leaders; third, the undervalued role assigned to technology in the planning phase; fourth, inadequate evaluation of potential projects; five, deficiencies in education on technical advances and six, the predominance of turnkey facilities.

The North consolidates its domination

Zahlan warns that a culture importing only such turnkey projects is destined to become a turnkey culture. To this way of thinking, technology transfer is just one further area through which the North consolidates its economic and cultural domination over the South. Frequently, western managers propagate the transfer of cheap and simple procedures that are perceived as second-rate and further reinforce the feeling of inequality.

Georges Corm also notes that the forms taken by technology transfer have hardly changed at all from the 19th to the 20th century. He finds it astounding that developing countries are still ready to assume considerable financial burdens in order to import western technologies, even though in the 19th century the very same process led the Arab states into bankruptcy and their subsequent occupation by foreign powers. Despite this cautionary lesson, the Arab world today once again finds itself saddled with spiraling debt, caused in part by the expenses of technology transfer.

Feelings of inferiority and fears of foreign infiltration through the assimilation of "western" technologies have triggered a vehement controversy. On the one hand, modern technology gives material form to the economic and cultural domination of the West, which is rejected. On the other hand, this same technology is deemed irreplaceable for maintaining competitiveness in the globalisation processes that have been intensifying ever since the eighties. In the post-colonial states, industrialization through technology transfer was among the most important concerns.

Great hope was placed in the ability of new technologies to help fight poverty. The political legitimacy of research and development was high, since import substitution and self-reliance counted among the central elements of independence. Priority was also given to the national education system. With the end of colonialism, education was to become accessible to the wider population. The number of universities in the Arab world grew from ten in 1950 to 175 in 1995. In the past ten years these have been joined by approximately 40 private universities.

In the seventies it was assumed that the input required to bring forth scientific progress could be quantified. Thus, an Arab country at that time - according to Zahlan - would need 1,000 scientists devoted to research per each million inhabitants, and should set aside 0.7 percent of its gross national product for financing research. Half of these scientists should also teach at the universities. As a consequence of highly qualified dissertations and a growing number of scientific publications and patents, the standard of living of the society in question would rise and at the same time the country would achieve contact with the international scientific landscape.

This positivistic belief ran up against a wall as soon as people noticed that, despite the high level of investment in the national education system, innovation could not simply be steered by means of quantitative input. True, illiteracy rates were reduced considerably, young men and women being the primary target group to benefit from this change, but in very few cases were these young people able to find further training once they had left school.

Only 430 universities in Muslim nations

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, reference has continually been made to the desolate condition of the research and science institutions in the Islamic world. At a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in March 2002, Pakistan's President Musharraf called for the establishment of a fund for the promotion of education, research and technology. He cited the fact that, while in Japan alone there are 1,000 institutes of higher learning, the Muslim nations as a whole have only 430 universities. According to Musharraf, in all 57 states belonging to the OIC, only 500 doctor titles in the natural sciences are bestowed each year, while Great Britain alone grants this title to 3,000 students per annum.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has further aggravated the controversy over the acceptance or rejection of western technologies. Technological progress has been a key component of Zionist ideology from the very start. Today, not only Israel's civilian use of the best in modern technology (particularly in agriculture and the high-tech sector) is praised by Europe and the USA as a model worthy of emulation - and in part as a justification for the existence of Israel in the region -, but its military superiority as well further stokes the controversy.

While some support the viewpoint that science and technology need not necessarily dictate the outcome of a military confrontation, citing as examples Algeria and Vietnam, others are convinced that the Arab world is in need of modern armaments and a modern army, without which a confrontation with Israel cannot be won. Already at the end of the sixties, Israeli natural scientists published 2.4 times as much as scientists in the entire Arab world (at that time: 3 million vs. 126 million inhabitants), as Zahlan observes.

The Koran as frame of reference in science

In the Arab world the debate on "western" science is shaped by voices representing three schools of thought: first, those supporting the "Islamization" of science, second the dependency theorists and third the globalizers. The latter are a group who, even before the inflationary use of the term "globalisation" in the early nineties, dedicated themselves to the integration of their own scientific landscape into the international research context.

By contrast with those in favor of the Islamization of science, they are sometimes referred to as secular natural scientists. However, this description seems to miss the real core of their approach, since it is used only to demarcate them from the culturalist perspective of the Islamists rather than to characterize the scientists' own chosen focus, which is integration into the global research horizon.

Those endorsing the Islamization of science, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, use the Koran as their sole frame of reference and point to the glorious age of Islamic science, between the eighth and twelfth centuries. This is their way of dealing with a paradoxical set of emotions: on one hand wanting to participate in modernization processes, and on the other hand wanting to keep these separate from westernization processes.

"These processes, which, on the way toward technical modernization, encroach deeply upon everyday life and even intervene in the relationships between the sexes, bring about a loss of orientation. ... Islam is no longer to be the solution with regard to western heteronomy, but rather with respect to our own ensnarement in westernization, which, wherever an overabundance of western technology can be purchased, demands new forms of human coexistence."

The Dependency Theory

The second school reacted to the confrontation with the western technologies commonly perceived as superior with an approach that invoked dependency theory. Critics belonging to this school of thought argue that western technological achievements are not adapted to actual problems in developing countries. They would thus have no influence on the quality of life of the broad population. On the contrary, these technologies would have the effect of shifting state budget priorities, increasing foreign debt and consolidating dependency on the West.

Representatives of the dependency theory school by no means base their conclusions on religion- or culture-specific impediments to entering a dialog, but rather take up a primarily neo-imperialist discourse as their frame of reference. The dependency theory debate on science and technology has not adapted itself to the standpoint of cultural relativism espoused by the Islamists: globalisation is not interpreted as marginalization of those who are Muslim, but instead as marginalization of those who are weaker.

A number of Arab authors perceive western scientists and entrepreneurs as playing an active role in the "clash of civilizations", or as being responsible for increasing hostility between the Islamic and Christian worlds. After all, patents and Nobel Prizes are granted and international scientific conferences are held almost exclusively in the West. In this view, international patent law reinforces dependency on the industrialized nations. According to Quraish, 92 percent of the patents registered in the Arab world were granted to foreign experts.

In 1996 Egypt registered only three patents

Worldwide, less than six percent of all registered patents are held by citizens of developing countries, and only a small proportion of patents registered in developing countries actually apply to products from these countries. In 1996 Egypt registered a grand total of three patents.

In his study on Egypt, Antoine Zahlan comes to the conclusion, after carrying out a quantitative evaluation, that there are "invisible colleges" that exchange information, mutually keep each other up to date on the latest advances and new discoveries, invite one another to conferences, and thus serve to motivate each other. The Arab world hardly participates in this system at all. "Visible and invisible colleges channel information and contribute substantially to discussion that eventually leads to scientific discoveries... These gatherings and channels of communication are also important to scientists in search of jobs and research support. It is through the process of socialization into these invisible colleges that young scientists can develop their objectives and acquire new direction. This belonging is not a mark of dependence or weakness, but is necessary to scientific activity.

In recent literature on science in DCs (developing countries, S.H.) some authors have interpreted this type of relationship as a form of dependence and as an expression of the marginalization of DC science. The confusion in public opinion that has now accumulated on this specific relationship is an illustration of the rather difficult environment of the Third World scientist." Even when international conferences do take place on Arab soil, Arab scientists are frequently underrepresented.

The theory of the anti-Arab development

In the age of globalisation - according to the third school - the phenomenon represented by the integration of business, politics, culture and science is seen as a continuation of subjugation under a "new world order" and as an anti-Arab development. The globalisation processes at the close of the 20th century are not viewed as heralding an age of new phenomena resulting from a scientific-technological revolution, but rather presented and discussed as a scenario with inherent neo-colonial menace. This is a questionable intellectual undertaking, because it gears public opinion toward a "false" enemy.

Since globalisation processes are understood as inescapable Americanization processes, influences from the region are negated back towards the "center". The tendency to see oneself merely as an object and victim of a global wave of conquest subconsciously carries on a project of the West that is deeply deprecated by leftist secular intellectuals, namely the exclusion or isolation of Arab natural and social scientists.

This isolation has a negative impact on national research prospects. There is a lack of critical mass (i.e. a market opinion) to afford scientists constructive feedback. This explains one of the gravest impediments to development in the region: the migration of large numbers of academics. According to Antoine Zahlan, by the mid-seventies 50 percent of all Arab medical professionals, 23 percent of engineers and 15 percent of all natural scientists had emigrated to the USA and Western Europe. Georges Corm calls this brain drain "reverse technology transfer".

What is the "Versailles of the Muslims"?

In later commentaries on the September 11th attacks, many asked derisively, what exactly constituted the "Versailles of the Muslims that prevented them from constructing civilized and prosperous societies".

We quote Seibt here as representative of such statements, although, shockingly, one also hears similar views coming from German political consulting institutions. This ignorant position destroys all hope of a "dialog between civilizations", since the Arab point of departure is simply passed over. In prescient articles published even before September 11th, the de-industrialization of Iraq was compared to the Allies' program for isolating and ostracizing Germany following the First World War.

In conjunction with Falk, I would therefore like to touch on the central points that lead Muslims to speak of a strategic exclusion of their representatives from world society, which they perceive as an ongoing humiliation: no Muslim country is a permanent member of the UN Security Council or of the G8, and there has never been a Muslim General Secretary of the UN.

Falk refers to the imbalance between the perceived value of Muslim and non-Muslim victims, as well as the low degree of sympathy expressed for the former (e.g. in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya or Kashmir), discriminatory treatment in the nuclear weapons treaty (when talking about Pakistan, reference is made to an "Islamic bomb", while no one characterizes Israel's atomic weapons as the "Jewish bomb"), varying punitive measures enforced by the international community (e.g. the end of the sanctions against Serbia at the end of the war, while sanctions against Iraq continue to be enforced ten years after the war, despite the high number of civilian casualties), the handling of terrorist attacks (the proceedings against Timothy McVeigh were relocated out of Oklahoma for fear that the jury there would lack objectivity, while the perpetrator of the first attack on the WTC in 1993, Omar Rahman, was tried in New York) and the stigmatization of individual countries by calling them "rogue nations".

All of these factors contribute to the lack of interest evinced by citizens of the Middle East in taking up residence in the global village and arranging their lives according to western patterns.

Globalisation resistance

After over 200 years of continual postponement of integration into the world market and world society, the Arab world manifests a marked resistance against globalisation processes. The repression of nationalistic politics brought about by the process of globalisation destabilizes the relationship between state and society to such an extent that the backlash grows all the more determined. Johannes Willms saw the attacks of September 11 as an attempt to acknowledge the contemporaneousness of the non-contemporaneous:

"In these words (Bin Laden's first video, S.H.) one can hear a yearning for the acceptance of the real coexistence of the non-contemporaneous, and indirectly also the demand for unconditional respect for fundamental cultural realities and points of view. But this is a condition that is absolutely foreign to the Occident, which feels committed to a universalism of its own values and therefore has always gone forth with a clear conscious to arrange the world according to its own ideas. ... This illuminates the fact that America in particular confronts this sort of self-confident anti-modernism with an utter lack of comprehension, and even perceives it as an existential threat."

Globalisation is perceived by most theorists not as heterogenization, but rather as homogenization of the periphery by the capitalist center. In their opinion, this leads in the Arab world to a marginalization of autochthonous cultural production, technologies, economic cycles and policy plans. Empirically observed phenomena, such as the repercussions affecting Arab and Muslim culture in Europe and the USA, are suppressed.

Here, it's not simply a matter of terms like "fatwa, gihad, ayatollah and others long having entered the global vernacular", claims Fürtig in conjunction with Ahmed and Donnan, but of the authoritative influence of young cultural products from the Arab and Islamic realm on music (Khaled, Rashid Taha), literature (Rushdie, Soueif) and film. Films by up-and-coming directors from the Islamic world have recently enjoyed a surprisingly vivid presence at international film festivals, such as "al-Medina" by Youssef Nasrallah (2001); "Wesh wesh, qu'est-ce qui se passe?" by Rabah Ameur Zaïmeche (2002) and "America so beautiful" by Babak Shokrian (2002).

New phenomena such as the hybridization of culture go unnoticed, even though the Arab world functions as a giver and not just a taker in this process. Thus, the enemies of globalisation processes only wind up depriving themselves of power. The category of alienation frequently cited in the analysis of Arab theorists, originally attributed to the classic industrial society, reflects the acceptance of classic neo-Marxist dependency theories. From this vantage point, globalisation can only lead to homogenization and fragmentation. Technology is a critical example of this. It is viewed as one of the many instruments of the "West" that serve only to divide and fragment the Arab-Islamic civilization.

In the attacks of September 11, 2001 Arab citizens discovered that someone from their midst had succeeded in "mastering" globalisation in all its aspects: this was evident technically-speaking in the airplanes' perfectly executed approach to the WTC, economically visible in the dramatic collapse of the New York Stock Exchange, and culturally impressive by virtue of the achievement of "their" elite students, who had so successfully integrated themselves into the West.

Source: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 18/2002

Sonja Hegasy belongs to the staff of Center for Modern Oriental Studies.