Science, Meet Religion: The Need for Academic Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa

Ben Wright

5 July 2018

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In September of 2001, Kassem AlSayed Mahmoud left his home country of Syria to pursue Masters and Doctorate degrees in Agricultural Engineering and Food Science.  In 2009, after six years of study and two further years of research, he returned home to pursue a career in the research of edible oils. This goal would never be realized for Kassem.  

Kassem spent a year fighting bureaucracy, nepotism, and corruption at his university in order to secure funding and appropriate technology, but soon after finally managing to establish a functioning laboratory he was forced into the Syrian mandatory military service. After two years witnessing the atrocities of war, Kassem gave up on his dream of research at home and fled the country to conduct his research at Ghent University in Belgium.

Kassem’s story is one which is all too familiar to scientists all across the Middle East and North Africa, but it is frequently not as dramatic. Rather than sending scientists to war, or openly defying research, governments more often cut funding and create other academic roadblocks such as a lack of access to equipment. The climate for researchers has become inhospitable, robbing them of the freedom to practice science without the restraints of the state.

This stems in large part from a lack of reconciliation between science and the Islamic doctrine. In the West, Christianity and science have the same contrast, but it is reconciled by keeping the state and church as separate entities. In the Middle East, however, government and policy are deeply rooted in religion. Governments have an agenda towards the morals of Islam. Research about evolution, physics, or psychology, the findings of which directly counter the views of Islam, become a target of the government. In the resulting conflict, it is the researchers who pay the immediate price. In cases like this, the scientists in these fields find themselves with a lack of freedom to secure funding and conduct research. Others, especially in the social sciences, have been persecuted and arrested for their publications. But it is the states that pay the biggest price in the end.

Across the region, there are consistently fewer researchers per capita and lower research and development expenditure as a percentage of GDP than elsewhere in the world. This reduces their ability to compete with other nations in the development and production of new technologies. In a global economy driven by technology and its extremely rapid development, these nations are put at a great disadvantage. Without the researchers or funding, they are becoming unable to keep up with scientifically active nations such as Israel or Sweden.

Instead, it seems these governments believe that science and technology are meant only to be bought and not developed. Purchasing the technology to create marvels of modern life gives many cities, such as Dubai, the appearance of being at the cutting edge of science. In reality, however, they have very limited development and bring in foreign engineers and scientists to complete projects. To highlight this, in May the United Arab Emirates passed laws permitting 100 percent foreign ownership of companies and allowing ten year residency visas for highly skilled specialists, doctors, and students.

There are many steps that need to be taken in order to improve this rift.  Primarily, governments must remove the bureaucratic hurdles preventing scientists from freely conducting research. Enforceable legislation must be put in place to reward merit with funding and ensure the safety of scientists. At this point the stage will be set for science to flourish in the region. But with research currently holding such a small foothold, further measures will be necessary. Science must become a focal point in primary schools, encouraging children to explore the field and pursue it.  Women must especially be encouraged to participate in research, doubling the number of potential members of the scientific community.

Finally, these nations must commit to investing money into scientific development.  Rather than pay to import a given technology, funding must be allocated towards opening scientific centres of excellence, which can produce scientific discoveries and foster interest in the scientific community.

As the rate of scientific progress and technological development around the world increases, it will become increasingly important for nations to encourage research and development. Their standing in the global economy will rely on their ability to develop their own technology through scientific inquiry. In the Middle East and North Africa this will mean tearing down barriers stifling scientific freedom and encouraging the growth of domestic research. If states do not commit to this, they will be unable to catch up to Western nations’ economic might in the growing science and technology sector.