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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 August 2005, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Does Lord Tebbit have a point?

By Stephen Evans
BBC British Affairs correspondent

A former British government minister has just thrown the cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting that Muslim countries have offered the world few technological innovations in the last five centuries.
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Norman Tebbit - now Lord Tebbit - was a key minister in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and does not mince words.

"The Muslim religion is so unreformed since it was created that nowhere in the Muslim world has there been any real advance in science or art or literature or technology in the last 500 years," he said.

It is a broad and unfashionable statement in Britain - but is it true?

Top schools

On technology, it does seem that he has a point.

It is hard to identify any significant development that has increased the world's material well-being and that has come from a Muslim country.

The internal combustion engine, electricity, the internet, flight, penicillin - whatever you care to name - emerged from the West, a West that occasionally seems so despised outside its confines.

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The Nobel Prizes for science have been dominated by researchers at American universities.

Earlier in August, an assessment of the world's best universities, taking into account published research by their academics, was overwhelmingly made up of American and British institutions.

Why is it then that the Muslim world has failed to deliver the technological innovations that the rich countries have produced?

The theocracy effect

There are no certain answers but it seems clear, according to many economic historians, that innovation emerges from a complex mix of culture, politics and even geography and geology.

Professor David Landes of Harvard University made the point that theocracies have not been particularly good for innovation.

Growth alone will neither bridge these gaps nor set the region on the road to sustainable development
Arab Human Development Report, United Nations

His argument broadly was that there was little point in curiosity about anything other than God if the view of the dominant culture was that only God mattered.

Of course, theocracies are not a Muslim monopoly.

The rulers of the Christian Catholic theocracies of mediaeval Spain and Italy had a deep suspicion of new knowledge - witness the persecution of Galileo after he challenged the view that the sun revolved around the earth.

And today, one wonders how much curiosity about evolution there might be in the American Bible Belt where evolution's scientific worth is denied.

In contrast, the countries of northern Europe with a different, perhaps looser set of attitudes produced many of the technological developments which were crucial to later industrial development - small developments with a big impact, like mechanical clocks or reading glasses that enabled craftsmen to make more detailed machinery.

Seats of learning

There are some things it is important to state: firstly, there have been very good universities in Muslim countries, like those in Egypt's Alexandria or Turkey's Istanbul, and some innovations do emerge.

But the sheer mass of life-improving innovations that come from European and American institutions is like an ocean to a droplet.

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It is also important to state that an analysis of a culture and whether it is conducive to enterprise or innovation is not a condemnation of a people.

But successive editions of the UN's Arab Human Development Reports have highlighted a problem.

Certainly, it has cited university libraries that lack resources, ancient laboratories, over-crowded classes, poorly-paid academics - but these are products of poverty.

It also pointed out that universities lack autonomy, with many institutions directly controlled by the regime of a particular country.

Lagging behind

The first Arab Human Development Report two years ago said that the region, defined as the members of the Arab League, has had the lowest per-capita growth in the world apart from sub-Saharan Africa.

The study which was done by 30 Arab experts and intellectuals said that "the Arab region is hobbled by a different kind of poverty - poverty of capabilities and poverty of opportunities".

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"These have their roots in three deficits: freedom, women's empowerment and knowledge. Growth alone will neither bridge these gaps nor set the region on the road to sustainable development".

It is a problem recognised by some Muslims.

Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, said three years ago that the Muslim Ummah or worldwide Islamic community had a gross domestic product of only half that of Germany despite being a quarter of the world's population.

He called for a "jihad against illiteracy, poverty, backwardness and deprivation", pointing out that the entire Muslim world has only 25 universities of any standing.

"Japan alone has over 1,000 universities", he said. "The entire Ummah produces only 500 PhDs in science subjects. Britain alone produces 3,000 in science every year."

Knotty solution

But identifying the problem is easier than solving it because culture and the economy are intertwined.

A view on the role of women in society has implications for economic growth because women have the ability to learn skills like men do and to exclude them from parts of the economy is to exclude their skills.

Scientific curiosity can't be sparked overnight, nor can the political conditions conducive to innovation.

For centuries, science was revered throughout Islamic lands with sumptuous libraries from southern Spain to Baghdad - and at a time when the Christian world was often dark and ignorant.

Islamic scholars translated Greek texts and introduced them to Western Europe so spreading enlightened ideas.

There were great advancements in astronomy, medicine, philosophy and mathematics (the word algorithm is derived from the name of an Arab mathematician). Arabs gave the world algebra.

But that was a long time ago.

Does Lord Tebbit have a point?

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.

Lord Tebbit has a very sensible opinion, which no doubt will be fiercely attacked. His point is valid in regard to any religion, not only Islam. The ultra-religious right in US should also take notice that mixing too much religion with science, education and politics is a sure recipe for long term stagnation. Unfortunately, President Bush seems to think otherwise and makes almost medieval statements about stem cell research, Darwinism, religion in schools whenever he has a chance. God bless anyone who is religious, but they should understand that imposing your brand of religion indiscriminately on others is morally wrong.
Iulian, Seattle, USA

I agree with Lord Tebbit that Muslims have not contributed much to innovation, but that does mean in any way that Islam is to blame. After all it was the Muslims in medieval times that were the leaders in innovation and knowledge. The problem is more because of illiteracy caused by lack investment from governments in the education systems, something that has been very important in the history of Islam.
Saboor Khan, London, Canada

Religion leads in a wrong direction when it takes the focus away from faith and on to enforcement of rules on another person. The West is not immune to this problem.
Paul, Texas, USA

I think Lord Tebbit is confusing politics with religion. Go to British universities and you will find Muslim students as good as any other. You come to the US investment bank and you will find they actively recruit from Turkish universities. You go to a non democratic country, a poor country be they Christian or Muslim, and you will find them scientifically backward.
Solomon Drury, London

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