DAWN - Editorial; 08 October, 2004

October 08, 2004

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Muslims and the Nobel prize

One painful phenomenon about the Nobel prizes is the absence of Muslim names whenever they are announced. So far only six people from Muslim countries have won the Nobel, with only two of them in science - Pakistan's Dr Abdus Salam (physics) and Egypt's Ahmad Zewail (chemistry).

Three have won it for peace (Anwar Saadat, Yasser Arafat, and Iran's Shirin Ebadi), and Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz for literature. Three Arab Christians have also won the prize in science - Elias James Corey, Peter Medawar and Farid Mourad - but they were all based in the West.

Chinese, Japanese and Israeli scientists have also received this honour, but most Nobel prizes are won by western countries. This year, six Americans and two Israelis have already won it for work in various scientific disciplines.

Does this hold out a lesson for the Muslim world? One is that America and the West are not all permissive societies, unwed mothers and Muslim-hating white supremacists, as our bigots hold. The West, more than most others, represents enlightenment and knowledge, and what is most missing in today's Muslim world - the spirit of free inquiry.

Europe liberated itself from the clutches of the papacy centuries ago, but one cannot say when a day will come when the Muslim people will begin to think for themselves.

The US may have its neo-conservative fanatics but it also has men and women dedicated to science, art, literature, charity and human rights. Many Pakistanis and immigrants from other counties are honed in western institutions of learning and contribute to science and technology in the research-oriented atmosphere they find in the West.

It is a measure of the backwardness of the Muslim fraternity that the Jewish world with a population of 12 million has won 163 Nobel prizes, 151 of them in science, while the Muslim world has produced only two Nobel laureates in science.

This was not always the case. During Europe's Dark Ages, the Muslim world flourished intellectually and produced men whose contribution to the sciences and arts is recognized till this day.

Spain's Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was the world's first free thinker, while Ibn Khaldun, with his monumental work Prolegomena, is considered the "father of historiography".

Others include Al Beiruni, who measured the radius of the earth in the 11th century and was wrong by a margin of 15 kilometres; Avicenna (Ibn Sina) whose book on medicine, Al Qanoon, was taught in European universities until the 17th century. One of his students was a brilliant Jewish scholar, Ibn Gabirol.

The basic reason for the flowering of the intellect was the atmosphere of tolerance in the Muslim world. For that reason, Muslim Spain is recognized as intellectually Jewish history's best era.

The Jews from Spain included Maimanides, whose writings profoundly affected Jewish thought. He found himself in Egypt and was a physician at Saladin's court.

The Abbasid caliphs patronized learning, and encouraged the translation of Greek books on philosophy into Arabic, while Al Ghazali, in the Middle East, and Averroes in Spain were leading lights in polemics. Averroes' writings later gave rise to a school of thought in Europe called Latin Averroism.

The Mongol sacking of Baghdad not only destroyed Arab civilization; it also intellectually crippled the Muslims, until the 19th century when men like Syed Ahmad Khan and Mohammad Abduh challenged the established thought and came under fire from Muslim clerics.

We need to capture the spirit of free inquiry and ijtihad if Muslims have again to recapture their position in the realm of thought, ideas, research and studies.

Carnage in Multan

The death of dozens of people in Multan yesterday following two bomb blasts at a banned religious organization's gathering is the latest massacre in a series of recent acts of terrorism.

It comes on the heels of last Friday's suicide bombing at a rival sect's mosque in Sialkot which killed 31 people. As in Sialkot last week, the army has been called in to maintain law and order following the carnage.

The gathering in question was held to mark the first death anniversary of MNA Maulana Azam Tariq, the late chief of the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan who was gunned down by unknown assailants near Islamabad last year.

The statements being issued condemning the latest attack echo those routinely made by the authorities every time terrorists strike. The religious leaders too are likely to hide behind hypocritical grandstanding, attributing the latest atrocity to the enemies of Islam - the rationale being that no Muslim can kill fellow Muslims.

It is this kind of wilful denial of reality on the part of all concerned, besides failure of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, that has left sectarian violence and acts of terrorism unchecked.

The truth is that sectarian hatred of a ferocious kind is very much present in our midst. A 'foreign hand', even if one is to be found behind a given act of terror, is an exception rather than the rule.

The demon itself is nurtured and goaded on by a section of priests on both sides of the sectarian divide preaching hatred and intolerance. Luckily, the vast majority of the people do not share this intolerant sectarian view of their faith.

This is reason enough for the authorities to come down hard on those few rogue elements who are preaching and practising violence in the name of religion. How many more bloodbaths of innocent people do we need to wake up to this reality?

Hazardous hospital waste

Notices have been served on 20 public and private sector hospitals and clinics in Lahore on grounds of hazardous disposal of biomedical waste and thus being guilty of violation of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 and the Punjab Local Government Ordinance 2001.

According to reports, Lahore's combined medical facilities, that include almost 100 hospitals, 800 private clinics, and a large number of laboratories, produce close to 11 tons of waste out of which more than three tons is believed to be infectious.

Had the hospitals in question and those others not yet proceeded against been conforming to the rules of safe disposal, they would have been separating the waste at source, thus minimizing the risk to people's health.

Instead, all hospital waste is dumped together, enabling scavengers to retrieve infected needles and surgical instruments, used urine and blood bags, etc. for recycling purposes, thus aggravating the threat to public health.

A stricter check has to be kept on medical outlets to ensure that such careless and unethical behaviour is not allowed - especially in cases where the hospital staff makes a profit by auctioning the waste for money.

Hospital waste must be disposed of in the prescribed manner, and even here, the authorities would do well to look into alternative ways of disposal other than the standard process of incineration that carries its own risks. But while the incinerators remain, they should be kept in working condition and away from the public as noxious fumes resulting from faulty devices could pose another health hazard.

Meanwhile, there should be greater pressure on owners of medical units or high-ups in government facilities to impress on their staff the importance of proper waste disposal and to take action against those found guilty of flouting the rules.