On the Importance of Scientific Communication Between Iranian and Western Scientists

Reza Mansouri
Sharif University of Technology, Tehran Iran and Iranian National Telescope (INO), Project Director

There are many good reasons for scientific collaboration between Iran, or any other Moslem country, and the West. The obvious one is the international nature of science, and another is the simple fact that there is lot to learn from the West, certainly as far as science is concerned. In the lexicon of international organizations, such as the World Bank, one can find many expressions indicating the importance of science communication with the West, such as the catchy new slogan "knowledge is development". However, at least in the case of the Islamic World, the reality is not so simple.

For example, when we hear or use words like knowledge, science, or scientific collaboration, do we all understand the same thing? I am convinced that we do not. And the situation is exactly the same for many of the neologisms that have been coined in the past two centuries of the scientific era. Let me illustrate with an extreme example from political science—terrorism. The West calls the activities of Hezbollah in Lebanon a “terrorist act.” But that is not the opinion in the Moslem world. I am probably not far off in claiming that some 80% of the people in predominantly Moslem countries would call the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, if not a terrorist act, at least a humiliating intervention. Far from wanting to be political, I mention this only to emphasize my point that the same words or expressions have very different impacts in the West and in Islamic countries, such as Iran. It is further important to note that the technological superiority of the West does not at all mean to a Moslem that the West also enjoys a cultural superiority. For a Moslem, the West, by definition, still has much to learn from the Moslem world; furthermore, Western political and social concepts are vague and unclear terms, and as a result there is no need to pay attention to them. Al Hurra television or Radio Sawa may provide occasional entertainment, but the bulk of their broadcasting is just nonsense. The Moslem world is deeply rooted in its own culture and still ignorant of the cultural values of the West, be they political, social, or scientific. The West, especially the U.S., does not even try to understand this manifest reality, and continues to repeat the failures of the past centuries.

With respect to science, we have to realize that history has conditioned the mind of a Moslem in a very specific way, whether or not he is actively practicing his religion.

Science is identified unconsciously with theology and the same words are used for both. Science, which is referred to as “elm,” becomes simply a part of the theological sciences. What is not theological science is called ”fazl”, meaning good to know, but just not necessary. This situation is in no way to be compared with that in Europe in the seventeenth century, because the natural philosophers, the European scientists of the time, tried to draw clear lines of demarcation between science and religion in order to protect themselves. Moslems today, leaving aside some rare cases not comparable to what we witness in the U.S., are ready to accept any “scientific knowledge” without seeing any religious contradiction. In fact, the identification of science with religion is a vivid experience in the Moslem world. If one asks about science from a young Moslem boy or girl trained in one of the seminaries or educational outreach programs organized by Moslem clerics, he or she would answer by reciting some of the disciplines taught in the seminaries, and consider anything else to be a bit of diverting philosophy. If one observes university life in any Moslem country, it will be apparent that the way of teaching and practicing science is totally in conformance with the concept of religious knowledge. Science (read Elm), is something that exists and worth knowing. It is not produced or created, it is just somewhere. Therefore, reading books, as in a seminary, is the essential part of scientific life. Everything outside of religious knowledge, such as physics or astronomy, is just “fazl”, good to know, but it is not science. We “modern” academics may not admit it, but we do act like that. When the president of Sharif University was recently asked why his institution is not among the top 200 universities of the world, he said it was because of the political criteria being chosen to rate universities in the West, and that Iran has to define its own criteria. This is certainly one of the reasons why Moslem scientists educated in the West may have fine careers there, but on returning to their home countries fail to succeed as science managers or administrators. In the West they can be normal scientific workers and do not need to be administrators. In fact, too often we do witness a kind of schizophrenic behavior of scientists in our countries. When they practice their science and solve problems theoretically or experimentally, they behave have more or less like any other scientist in the modern world; but once they try to administer science, they behave like a traditional "Olama", meaning that they act according to a very obsolete concept of science. That is why they may be successful in an industrial environment where there are professional managers to administer science, but fail in a Moslem country to succeed as science policy makers or scientific administrators based on the modern concept of science. Inter-Moslem institutions like COMSTECH (Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation), IAS (Islamic Academy of Sciences) and ISESCO (Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) may be good imitations for a show purposes, but a close look at of scientific excellence in our countries. This can only happen through fluid communication with the West on the highest scientific level. Otherwise we will define an excellence that is acceptable to ourselves and take no heed of Western concepts.

Ignoring this urgent need can only make the world more unstable and assure that it will remain so for a longer time. The simple fact that it is “technological knowledge” that makes Moslem extremists effective, should be a warning that we are only at the beginning of a long struggle. The only way of having an effective dialog is to assure that we are using the same terms and concepts and that our words convey the same meaning for both sides. Cooperation in the practice of the physical sciences can, I believe, be one of the most effective ways of achieving this objective—and is an activity of modern life which should be fully acceptable to the Moslem world.