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Arabs do not read

Najib Saab, Issue 187, October 2013

Edgar Choueiri, Princeton University plasma physicist, questioned how the Arabs could become full and equal partners with those who shape the world's economy, security and future, if they remain just consumers of science and technology rather than producers. He contested the rhetoric about the contributions which ancient Arab civilizations had made to physics, biology, mathematics and astronomy, saying that this is something of a remote past. The fact is that anti-reason and anti-science trends prevailed starting in the twelfth century, prompting a downfall in the Arabs' scientific legacy, until it reached its present tragic state. Choueiri pointed out that, in many parts of the Arab world today, astrologers are more valued than astronomers, warning of the false impression created by the increasingly growing number of users of internet and social media. There is no point in using the internet and technology to promote thinking of the middle ages.

Choueiri, the renowned American physicist of Lebanese origin, was speaking upon being decorated by the Lebanese American University (LAU) at a ceremony held for the inauguration of the University's New York Academic Center.

As matter of fact, Arabs care about the astrology TV stars like Michel Hayek, Hassan al-Sharni, Najla Qabbani and Layla Abdullatif, who sell them delusions, more than they care about space scientists like the Egyptians Farouk el-Baz and Wedad Abdou, the Iraqi Hamid al-Nuaimi, the Syrian Shadia Habbal, and the Lebanese Edgar Choueiri. In an article entitled The Myth of Astrology Versus the Science of Astronomy, published in Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia magazine, Abdul-Hadi Najjar noted that the names of most of those distinguished scientists are prefixed by the title "Arab-American". It unfortunately seems that there is no place for creative people across the Arab world.

The situation is actually drastic. Over a period of twenty years, only 370 patents were registered for researchers from Arab states, while South Korea - whose population is one tenth of that of the Arab world - registered 16,000 patents. Moreover, whereas the number of mobile phones in the Arab countries is more than 400millions, the number of those who read one book per year, other than textbooks, is less than twenty millions, i.e. nearly 5 percent of Arabs. Fifty Five years ago, poet and intellectual Yusuf Al-Khal wrote bitterly: "Arabs do not read; and if they do, they do not understand..."

According to the Arab Thought Foundation's annual report on Arab Cultural Development, every 20 Arabs read one book per year compared to 11 books read for an average American and 7 books for an average British individual. This means that - in terms of book reading - every American equals as much as 220 Arabs and every British equals 140 Arabs, in terms of reading. Some would counter this by saying that we are living in the age of internet, and people do not read printed books any more. But the rate of downloading books from the internet in the Arab world is not promising as well, as many initiatives to sell electronic books in Arabic collapsed soon after being launched. A quick glance at Arabic chats on blogs and social media reveals that the vast majority are preoccupied by superficialities. It is indeed employing modern information technology to spread retarded ideas.

How far are the Arabs away from a new age governed by science? What have they done to overcome the challenges of securing fresh water, food and sustainable energy? What did the Arab scientists and researchers accomplish inside the Arab regin and for the benefit of its peoples? Unfortunately, the prevailing trend is still importing technologies and instruments with the necessary operating and maintenance staff. But if the import of consumer items like potatoes is possible, science cannot be bought and imported, because this is equivalent to intellectual sterility.

Learning how to write a medical prescription does not make you a physician. Similarly, using the title "Dr." as a prefix is not enough to make a scientist. Knowledge that does not contribute to the progress of mankind is of no use, thus being equal to unharmful ignorance. Worst of all is the startling scandal reported in the October 2013 issue of Al-BiaWal-Tanmia magazine about thousands of Arabs who acquired false degrees from fake universities that award diplomas for a hundred Dollars. We shall never advance in science, or in arts and literature, unless we rid ourselves of being obsessed by titles, and shift our attention from public relations to serious efforts grounded in knowledge and innovation.



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ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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