The benefits and costs of pluralism are a package deal. Those who scream themselves hoarse that we can and should adopt the benefits without the costs are either being disingenuous or displaying an ignorance of monumental proportions.
Higher education in the Muslim world is a glaring example. From the dawn of the post-colonial era, autocrats of all stripes have dismissed calls for greater participatory governance and civil liberties as mere “Western” ideas and instead, in typical Oriental condescension, have called for their subject -- and subjects they are in reality, the constitutional nomenclature of citizenship notwithstanding -- to partake in “Western” learning without the “Western” ethos of freedom.
As late as two years ago, Egypt’s American educated former President Morsi was peddling that opportunistic nonsense.
Morsi, like the vast majority of his current peers amongst presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs of Muslim-majority countries simply doesn’t understand how the creation, dissemination, and refinement of knowledge work.
Financial investment alone doesn’t do the trick, or else by now Americans and Europeans would be trekking to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to get their graduate degrees, instead of the reverse. The social and legal environment of open inquiry, encouragement of cross-disciplinary frameworks of scholarship at every level of education, and constant iconoclasm of “settled” concepts of history, physics, and biology are sine qua non for the advancement of knowledge in the modern world.
Such an environment simply doesn’t exist in the Muslim world. If you think that is too broad of a statement, take a look at the 2017 Freedom House report on Global Freedom where every country of the world is ranked on a comprehensive set of measurable criteria for pluralism, democracy, rule of law, social liberty, and economic freedoms: Of the 60 odd countries where Muslims are in a majority, only two (Tunisia and Senegal) are considered fully free.
Nice sounding wordings in ignored constitutions, exhortations to “Islamic justice,” and phony elections leading to pretend parliaments simply do not impress scholars who examine reality.
The price of that reality has been brutal. Each year, untold billions are transferred as payments from Muslims countries to those free societies where higher education thrives so that young Muslim women and men can avail educational opportunities they don’t have at home.
The brain drain of the finest young minds has left too many Muslim countries no better in their human development metrics than they were half a century ago
The brain drain of the finest young minds -- future top level economists, scientists, engineers, professors, entrepreneurs -- has left too many Muslim countries no better in their human development metrics than they were half a century ago.
And the situation shows no sign of slowing down.
As late as 2015, a report commissioned by the Prime Minister of Malaysia and authored by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama painted in stark relief the knowledge gap that has been created by the democracy gap: The world’s Muslims countries, home to one in every four human beings on the planet, have together contributed 6% of the globe’s patents, less than 2% of its scholarly publications, and fewer than 3% of its research dollars investment.
Amongst the world’s Nobel science laureates and top 500 universities, any connection to Muslim societies is virtually non-existent.
The deficit of pluralism is a direct cause of the deficit of intellectualism.
Academic freedom, like freedom per se, is indivisible. Setting political and ideological boundaries around what can and cannot be inquired into in one discipline affects the sustainable environment of discovery in almost every other field of research very quickly.
It is not a surprise, thus, that despite having immediate applicability of their engineering feats, eventually the former communist bloc simply withered in terms of knowledge creation once the Cold War curtains came down.
The harsh truth is this: The creation, sustenance, diffusion, and refinement of knowledge thrive in those places where pluralism, democratic governance, and social freedoms are greater than those places lacking in such attributes of freedom.
And in terms of religion, no other geographical fact is more stunning for freedom than the reality that it simply doesn’t exist in the Muslim world barring a couple of remote outposts. No amount of phony nostalgia about “Islam’s Golden Age of Science” or the “Oxford of the East” can change that most inconvenient truism of contemporary intellectual life.
If the clarion call is indeed for the knowledge deficit in the Muslim world to be bridged quickly, the responsibility should rest squarely not on the “bad” West or some bogeyman of “colonialism” or even scholars, but on those rulers who have squelched individual freedoms and democratic pluralism while their own scions have been able to get the best education that the pluralist societies of the West have to offer.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.