The Muslim world, the cradle of one of the most splendid civilizations of all time, has for more than a century been discussing why it has remained backward.
If what intellectuals, academics, journalists and politicians in Indonesia, Morocco, Kazan, Yemen or other parts of the Muslim world have written in an effort to answer this question had been brought together, they would certainly have amply supplied a huge library.
In this huge imaginary library, one can obviously hear the elegiac voices in several dozen languages from hundreds of people coming from various parts of the Muslim world. Pricking up one’s ears, one will certainly find that two specific voices stand out from all the rest. One of them comes from Muslim thinker Said Nursi (1878-1960), who was vocal about the problems facing the Muslim world as well as ways to solve them in a sermon he gave at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus exactly 100 years ago.
And the second voice belongs to Muslim thinker Malek Bennabi (1905-1973), an Algerian who felt to the bone that colonialism, born at the turn of the last century, had oppressed many parts of the Muslim world.
These two great figures certainly have many aspects that we can focus on and discuss. But, in my opinion, what distinguishes these two intellectuals who tried to find the cause of the fall of the Muslim world is that they draw attention to the internal problems among Muslims rather than to external enemies or the colonialist policies of the Western countries. Like everyone else, they could not turn a blind eye to the developments external to the Muslim world, the brutality of its enemies and the conspiratorial policies of the West. They condemned and fought against them.
These two intellectuals did not manifest the slightest hesitation in rushing to the war front to defend their countries. When Ottoman territories were occupied by czarist Russia, we saw Nursi and his students fighting against the enemy. Similarly, when the navies of the Western states occupied İstanbul at the end of World War I, he wrote strongly worded articles in the newspapers of the time, urging people to “spit in the face of the cruel British”; he also lent full support to the War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal.
Despite French colonialists’ obstructions, Bennabi worked with never-ending energy and incredible courage to raise awareness among youth. He left France to join the National Liberation Front for the independence of Algeria.
What makes these two figures, both of whom fought directly against the enemy and never flinched in the face of the enemy, original in their approach is that they opted to focus on the inside rather than searching for scapegoats outside the Muslim world. According to observations Nursi voiced at the Umayyad Mosque 100 years ago, there are two causes of the problem, and without addressing them, it is futile to put blame on others. In his works, Nursi constantly underlines the crisis of civilization and faith. “Our enemies are ignorance, dissension and poverty. We will fight against these three enemies with art, knowledge and alliance,” he says.
Similarly, Bennabi, as a person who personally witnessed occupation and colonialism, sees that the problem is an internal one. For him, the historic decline of the Muslim world started before its encounter with the West, and the Muslim world was already ready to “be exploited” when it came in contact with the West. This is the internal reason for our backwardness. As these internal causes combined with external ones -- i.e., colonialism and its adverse effects -- the Muslim world found itself in an inextricable vicious circle. That is, colonialism came into being as a result of internal diseases. Therefore, what must be done is to stick to knowledge and learning so that we can no longer be open to exploitation.
A speech Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu delivered at the 14th General Assembly of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) held in Islamabad in January of this year is a sign that the 57-member OIC has come closer to the perspective of looking inside for the source of the problem, as noted in the views of Nursi and Bennabi. The organization was established upon the decision of a historic summit that took place in Rabat, Morocco, on Rajab 12, 1389 Hijri (Sept. 25, 1969) as a result of the criminal arson of the al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem. This reactivity is at the heart of it. Moreover, as many parts of the Muslim world, and especially Palestine, are occupied and oppressed, and as Islamophobia is gaining traction in the West, no one can expect the OIC to just sit back and watch. Actually, it should not sit and watch.
A 10-Year Action Plan adopted in 2005 in light of principles set forth by the wise men of the Muslim world who came together in Mecca signifies a new era. This era urges the organization to take action and develop and implement concrete goals in many critical areas, including economy, culture, education, research and development projects, human rights and food security. In other words, it seeks to combat, in Nursi’s words, ignorance and poverty and to make the Muslim world no longer prone to being exploited, as noted by Bennabi.
The facts discussed at the COMSTECH meeting in Islamabad not only indicate that the fundamental problems in the Muslim world have not changed much over the past 100 years but also promise that a different target has been set for the future in comparison to the past. According to the world average, there are 2,500 scientists for every 1 million people. This average is only 650 in OIC countries -- that is, only a quarter of the world average.
One of the major targets included in the OIC’s action plan is to ensure that each member allocates 1 percent of its gross national product (GNP) to research and development (R&D) activities. In 2005, when this target was set forth, the OIC’s average was 0.2 percent. The results of the five-year review are promising as this figure doubled to become 0.42 percent. In Turkey, this rate increased from 0.48 percent in 2003 to 0.73 in 2008. It aims to boost it to 2 percent by 2013. The progress made during the last five years is impressive. Pakistan’s rate for 2008 was 0.68 percent, while Tunisia, currently in the news for its Jasmine revolution, is one of the few countries that achieved the 1 percent target.
One of the indicators monitored by the OIC in the same context is the number of scientific and academic articles published in Muslim countries. Although these countries are behind the world average, there is a promising upward trend in this field as well. According to OIC statistics in 2000 18,391 articles were published in Muslim countries, while this figure rose threefold to 63,342 in 2009. A notable fact is that Turkey and Iran play a dominant role in this field. A total of 20,000 and 13,400 scientific articles were published in Turkey and Iran, respectively, accounting for more than half of the articles published in the rest of the Muslim countries.
I was only able to analyze one field here. I wish we could only analyze developments in boosting trade or cooperation among OIC members. If we could only examine the monthly and periodic reports issued by the Islamophobia Observatory, which reports Islamophobic incidents in each country, instead of uttering empty rhetoric against this dangerous trend that is on the rise in the West, it would be possible to better understand the OIC’s new direction. But don’t worry. Even if we cannot examine them, the OIC will conduct a five-year performance assessment of all targets specified in the action plan, and the results will be forwarded to foreign ministers and heads of state. Let us hope that these results are positive and that the new vision of the OIC, one that focuses on the actual or real ills of the Muslim community, is pursued with a stronger will.
*The article was published by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Journal in its January-March 2011 issue.