The Editors of Nature
Fighting against terrorism, engaging with Islamic science
week's attacks in New York and Washington were an offence against fundamental
values that merits a well-targeted response, helped by science. But
enhanced contacts with Islamic colleagues should also be pursued.
Science itself will play a critical role in the identification of the victims and in the unprecedented intelligence and military steps that the United States and others will now take to prevent such attacks in the future (see page 238). Many of the finest scientists and engineers will be called upon to channel their expertise into the defence of their countries against repetitions of last week's atrocity, and against its perpetrators and their defenders in every corner of the globe.
Appropriately, given last week's offence against fundamental values, most are likely to respond in full measure. A previous generation of scientists quietly helped to assure victory for the Allies in the Second World War, through the development of radar, code-breaking algorithms, and the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb (the last of which, as things turned out, had the least strategic significance of the three in that conflict). This time, the challenges lie in security innovations and counter-terrorism, intelligence gathering, and enhancing an already large military advantage.
With thousands of dead still to be identified and put to rest, engagement of any sort will be the last thing on many people's minds. But others, deeply affected by the conflict, may feel that not to explore it could be seen as a minor victory for terrorism.
Last week's terrorist violence, after all, was not the expression of a clash of civilizations: many Islamic scholars and leaders have emphasized that the murder of the innocent is as offensive to their beliefs as to anyone else's. Their societies should not stand condemned because of extremists who disagree.
Although there could be said to be a tide of Islamic activism in the Arabic world and in Asia, there is no uniformity about it. There is a common aspect, according to knowledgeable commentators, in which resurgent Islam appears to be giving a sense of values and cultural identity to populations that may see themselves as disadvantaged or repressed within their countries. But the political contexts and the consequences that follow are diverse - for example, only some activist groups are revolutionary in intent. Understanding that heterogeneity will be important.
of the Enlightenment
In Iran and in other Islamic countries, there is no shortage of intellectual interest in the Western scientific and philosophical traditions. But questioning about the philosophical and spiritual underpinning of science can be intense. Whether only parts of Western science and culture can be imported, and whether secularization is an essential corollary of the Western Enlightenment, are important questions for Islamic scholars.
Seyyid Hossein Nasr has commented on divergent views about modern science
within the Islamic world. One view, which he characterizes as 'modernist',
has for over a century set about importing science without much attention
to the consequences for the societies that seek to absorb it. Another
view sees Western science as giving rise to ethical problems for Islam,
but welcomes it nevertheless on the basis that Islam can resolve those
challenges on its own ethical terms. And then there is Nasr's own view,
which has been influential, and which sees science as inextricably bound
up in the system of values in which it operates. It makes sense, in
his terms, to identify Islamic science as related to Western science
but "totally transformed into the part and parcel of the Islamic intellectual
in comparison with the character of cold-war contacts, there may well
be fewer common assumptions between scientific communities in the West
and those in Islamic countries. There is much less knowledge of each
others' scientific histories, and a consequent lack of mutual appreciation.
But both inside and outside the Islamic world, there is also room for
consideration of shared beliefs about the values of science, its history
and its significance. Funding agencies should foster collaborations
between Islamic and Western scientists and between those in the humanities
studying science. Now may be a particularly good time to do so.