A panel of experts urged young people to take a greater interest in science in order to advance the Arab world.
More Arab scientists needed: panel
DUBAI // More young people in the Arab world should be steered toward careers in science in order to advance the Middle East.
That was the consensus of a panel of experts on Wednesday at a BBC World Service debate at the American University of Sharjah.
The debate, part of the Belief in Dialogue conference organised by the British Council in partnership with the university, highlighted the importance of science and free thinking while taking note of the reasons behind the "period of decline" that panellists said took place during the past two centuries.
"I would like to talk about the last period of decline, the past 200 years ... one of the factors is loss of freedom of thinking and freedom of opinion," said Rana Dajani, an assistant professor of molecular biology at the Hashemite University in Jordan.
"Because of the government that controlled the different elements in the Middle East, Arab world and Muslim world, there was colonisation and this helped create dictatorships, which stopped people from thinking."
Dr Dajani said this filtered down to the different sectors of the community socially and scientifically, thus impeding the Islamic world from making strides in science as it had in its glory days before the 1600s.
For example, the 9th-century Muslim inventor Abbas ibn Firnas invented the world's first flying machine, and glided briefly over southern Spain. Ibn Al Shatir of Damascus had theories along the lines of those developed by the astronomer Copernicus - but the Muslim was a century earlier. The Iranian polymath Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi introduced the decimal point, and was a pioneer of algebra - his name provided the word "algorithm".
Nidhal Guessoum, a professor of physics at the University of Sharjah, acknowledged that in the past half-century, parts of the Arab Muslim world had fallen under autocratic rule, but said that was slowly changing. "Most of the intellectuals and scientists did not rebel against that system, but now ... there are revolutions taking place and fundamental changes to society."
Dr Guessoum said the emergence of civil society and the extraordinary power of social media had led to this change, and young people were now finding out that they no longer needed to adhere to old forms of thinking.
"Change is coming ... what we want is to change the mentality of students, not necessarily to change what they believe in but at least to challenge them to reconsider their predisposed thoughts and prejudices so that they can form their own opinion," said Dr Dajani.
Dr Guessoum said the Arab world needed more scientists.
"I spent about five years with the Ministry of Education here in the UAE reformulating and going over all the textbooks from Grade 1 to Grade 12 ... because we need more critical thinking.
"Then we realised that the teachers are not trained properly and that society is not giving science any real exposure," he said.
Dr Sheikha Al Shamsi, the school accreditation department director at the Ministry of Education, said the UAE is making strides toward more scientific thought in education, but agreed that more needed to be done.
"This is a global issue, one that is not unique to the UAE," she said. "The reforms started years ago."
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