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Advocating an Arab Aggiornamento

Reforms Outlined to Help Islamic Culture Open Up to the Modern World

NEW YORK, NOV. 15, 2003 (Zenit) - On Oct. 20 the United Nations Development Program published its second Arab Human Development Report. Subtitled "Building a Knowledge Society," the report revealed that Arab countries urgently need to invest in education and foment intellectual activity if they want to avoid worsening a growing knowledge gap.

The UNDP emphasized that scholars from the Arab world prepared the report. Preparation involved a cooperative process involving nearly 40 authors and 30 advisers and peer reviewers, from a diversity of backgrounds in the Arab countries.

The report revealed a series of factors contributing to the knowledge deficit facing Arab countries.

-- Many children still do not have access to basic education, and the report notes, "Higher education is characterized by decreasing enrollment, and public spending on education has actually declined since 1985." The report added: "The most important challenge facing Arab education is its declining quality."

-- Fewer than one in 20 Arab university students are pursuing scientific disciplines, while South Korea the figure is one in five.

-- There is an almost total absence of advanced research in fields such as information technology and molecular biology. Moreover, state spending on research and development does not exceed 0.2% of gross national product.

-- Arab countries have an estimated 371 research scientists and engineers per million citizens, compared with a global rate of 979 per million.

-- Arab nations also suffer a continual brain drain, as large numbers of professionals emigrate to the West. Between 1998 and 2000, for example, more than 15,000 Arab doctors migrated abroad.

-- Access to digital media is among the lowest in the world. There are just 18 computers per 1,000 people in the region, compared with the global average of 78.3 computers. Only 1.6% of the Arab population has Internet access, compared with 68% in the United Kingdom and 79% in the United States.

-- As for traditional media, there are fewer than 53 newspapers sold per 1,000 Arab citizens, compared with 285 papers per 1,000 people in developed countries. In most Arab countries the media operate in an environment that sharply restricts freedom of expression. "Journalists face illegal harassment, intimidation and even physical threats, censorship is rife, and newspapers and television channels are sometimes arbitrarily closed down," stated the report. Moreover, most radio and television stations are state-owned.

-- The number of books translated, an important factor behind the transfer of knowledge, is extremely low. No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium, a sum equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year.

-- Indigenous book production is also scanty. Arabs constitute 5% of the world population, yet they produce only 1% of the world's books, and 17% of this production is accounted for by religious books, compared with 5% in the rest of the world. In 1996, for example, Arab countries produced no more than 1,945 literary and artistic books -- 0.8% of world production -- despite a readership of 280 million in the 22 Arab countries.

-- The report also identified a "severe crisis" in the teaching of Arabic. This involves a growing neglect of the functional aspects, with a deterioration of language skills. According to the report, Arabic language classes are often restricted to writing at the expense of reading. And classical Arabic "has in effect ceased to be a spoken language."

Hostile to modern culture

Apart from economic and political causes that hinder education in Arab countries, the report also deals with the hostility of some elements in Islam to modernity that have led to rejection of contemporary knowledge and progress.

In the past, Arab countries were home to a flourishing intellectual culture, the report observes. Arab intellectuals were instrumental in preserving and translating many works of classical Greek scholarship, which would otherwise have been lost to Europe. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Arab world opened itself up to science and literature coming from the Western world.

But more recently, the report comments, "political developments in the region and the absence of peaceful and effective political channels for dealing with injustices in the Arab world have pushed some Islamic clerics to give precedence to political aims over the cultural or social objectives of Islam."

As well, some countries have witnessed an alliance between repressive political regimes and conservative religious ...

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