Monday, November 16, 2009

New Saudi University Torpedoed by Islam?

Conservative Islam is once again showing that it is the enemy of knowledge.

This morning's National Public Radio had a wonderful report about the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). With one of the largest endowments in the world, a whopping $10 billion, KAUST promises to bring education and technological diversity to a country that is highly dependent on oil. Although the Saudi royal family is known for its heavy-handed rule, in this instance there is no doubt that King Abdullah was truly looking to modernize his country, to help foster a strong technology base that will outlast his country's oil supply. He saw that education, not money, is the key to the future.

The university opened with great fanfare and excitement, with journalists from all over the world reporting on this exciting new opportunity. Then, perhaps inevitably, religious obstructionism set in, in the form of a popular Islamic cleric, Sheikh Saad al Shethri.

The Sheikh declared that men and women shouldn't study together, that was unacceptable. Moreover, ideas like Evolution are irregular and alien, and shouldn't be taught. And to try to prevent the University from ever making real progress in educating young Saudis, the Sheikh decided that religious "scholars" should review the University's curriculum, to ensure that it doesn't contradict the Qur'an.

The good news is that Sheikh Saad al Shethri didn't get his way. He was widely criticized in the press, and was fired from his job on an advisory panel to the King. But he was able to keep his teaching job at an Islamic university, and his words have sparked a battle between reformists and conservatives in the country. His actions caused significant damage to the open flow of ideas and knowledge in Saudi Arabia. Where once journalists were free to visit KAUST and report on this amazing new center of education, they are now banned, and the University is trying to keep a low profile while the storm rages. Who knows what damage this obstructionist cleric's opinions might bring?

Conservative religions are justifiably afraid of progress. They rely on ignorance, they teach a "world history" that is just plain wrong, and their morals and laws are outdated by several thousand years. If we lived by their idea of progress, we'd still be wandering in the deserts and watching our children die of starvation and disease.

They know all too well the dangers of education: Their beliefs don't stand up in the face of real knowledge.

So we should expect this sort of behavior from conservative Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, whenever real knowledge is being taught. It's up to more reasonable people to push forward anyway, to fight to keep humanity moving forward.

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