Saturday, June 15, 2013

“Islamic Science” or Islamic Propaganda?

by Bruce Bawer


For years now, as we all know, newspapers, magazines, and book publishers around the Western world have shrunk from publishing texts that touch on some of the more uncomfortable truths about Islam, preferring instead to give us all but idyllic accounts of Muslim history and belief and hagiographies of its prophet. Similarly, film, TV, and theater producers have gotten into the habit of scrubbing scripts free of anything that might be considered critical of Islam, even as they’ve given the green light to one project after another that has done a thoroughgoing job of whitewashing the Religion of Peace.

Museums, too, have played this same timid game, quietly removing centuries-old images of Muhammed from display and putting them into storage for fear of offending believers. Meanwhile, museumgoers have been treated to shows that are sheer Islamic propaganda.

Last year, Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer about one such exhibition that was then on display at the British Museum. It professed to present an informed view of the history of the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – going all the way back to Muhammed. But, as Cohen observed, the museum’s version of Muhammed’s life stuck to “the authorised version of ‘religious scholars,’” ignoring actual findings by real historians. It also excluded “evidence that might embarrass the Saudi royal family,” such as the fact that those royals have “wrecked Mecca,” destroying “the remnants of the 7th-century city.”

Why should the British Museum be so concerned about Saudi sensitivities? Simple: because a Saudi library was the museum’s partner in putting on the exhibition; because Saudi authorities had loaned key items to the show; and because financial sponsorship had been provided by (or through?) a bank that “issues sharia-compliant loans.”

The exhibition dropped other things down the memory hole, too. It included no mention of terrorist acts that have occurred during the Hajj. Nor did it acknowledge “the stampedes, bridge collapses and fires that have claimed the lives of thousands of pilgrims” year after year. When asked by Cohen about these major omissions, museum officials “waffled” that such details “did not fit into the exhibition’s remit.”

Cut to Oslo, Norway, a year later. Tomorrow, an exhibition entitled “Sultans of Science: Islamic Science Rediscovered” will open at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology (an independent institution, but one that receives considerable financial support from the Norwegian state). According to the museum, “Sultans of Science” is “the largest science exhibition that has ever been seen in Norway.” Although, over the last few years, it has been on display in venues “in New Jersey, South Africa, Toronto, Edmonton, San Jose, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia,” this marks its first appearance anywhere in Europe. “We are proud to bring this exhibition to Norway and delighted to unfold the knowledge of a great civilization which will be an engaging and educating experience for our visitors,” museum director Hans Weinberger said in a press release.

On its website, the museum invites adults and children alike to come see “Sultans of Science” and thus “get acquainted with an important scientific legacy from Islamic culture.” Singing the praises of “the golden age of Islamic science,” during which “science was encouraged and supported” by “the great Islamic caliphates,” the museum’s website informs us that “the development of European culture was…directly influenced by Islamic culture,” but that the traces of this influence were eventually, and tragically, “erased.” Simply put, the purpose of this show is to acquaint Western audiences with the riches of Islamic science and its immense impact on Western science and technology.

In short: a giant tsunami of propaganda is about to hit Norway.

Needless to say, there are two main points to be made whenever the words “Islam” and “science” come up. The first is that Islamic culture, like none other on earth, has proven to be a remarkably powerful impediment to the development of anything remotely deserving of the name of science. The second point, a corollary of the first, is that the relatively few worthy scientific discoveries and inventions for which Islamic cultures can take credit have occurred in spite of, and not because of, any identifiable “Islamic” influence.

To put it bluntly, you could count all the Muslim winners of Nobel Prizes in science on one hand and have enough fingers left to crochet. This simple, straightforward fact is, in and of itself, a dramatic indictment of Islam, underscoring its intrinsic intellectual backwardness, its refusal to compromise in the slightest its foundation of primitive superstition, and the extraordinary degree to which it manages to suppress the inborn human curiosity about the natural principles that undergird the real world’s workings. But the whole aim of “Sultans of Science” is plainly to suggest precisely the opposite – not only that Islam and science can productively coexist, but that Islam, in all its wondrous glory, has ever since its beginnings proven to be rich and fertile soil for the flowering of scientific ideas and technological innovation.

Who’s behind this boatload of B.S.? Was it put together, as most traveling museum exhibitions are, by a legitimate museum of international standing? Was it curated by a respected, credentialed historian of science? Well, no. Officially anyway, the exhibition was created, and is sponsored, by an outfit called MTE Studios, which describes itself as “a specialized consultancy firm focused on themed architecture and interactive learning experiences.” Indeed, “Sultans of Science” is said to be the “traveling version” of an exhibition that is on permanent display in a mall in Dubai and that MTE put together in partnership with an institution called the Research House for Islamic Studies & Heritage Revival. (The website of the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology, by the way, links to an MTE press release that, making even great claims for Islamic science than does the museum’s own website, refers to “the remarkable achievements of Muslim civilization” and promises that Europeans who drop in on “Sultans of Science” will “be amazed to learn about the significant role the Islamic scholars have played in modern science, from astronomy to medicine to engineering to navigation and optics.”)

What’s the deal with MTE Studios? Based in both Dubai and Capetown, South Africa, it seems to enjoy a very close working relationship with a number of Muslim governments. For example, it runs the Bahrain Science Centre on behalf of the Bahraini state. It represented the United Arab Emirates at a 2010 conference in Malaysia on Islamic science. And it was commissioned by the Saudis to create a museum of Islamic science and technology at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology – a museum that would appear to be a model, more or less, for both the Dubai mall installation and the much-traveled international exhibition that is about to open in Oslo. Indeed, this would appear to be only one of a number of projects (including something called the “BUILD A CITY” Activity Zone at the Riyadh Science Oasis) on which MTE would appear to have collaborated intimately with the Saudis. Make of that connection what you will.

Mischievous disinformation about history on a massive scale is always unsettling. But here’s the most disturbing part of this particular story. A few Norwegians who are, presumably, aware of the exceedingly small overlap betweep the history of Islam and the history of science, and/or understandably troubled about MTE’s Saudi and other ties, and/or curious (also understandably) to know exactly who is paying for this very expensive-sounding exhibition, have posted polite and reasonable questions at the Facebook page of the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology. But their queries have met with something less than a friendly and responsive welcome from the museum – an institution that is nominally devoted, after all, to knowledge and learning. On the contrary, on Wednesday afternoon, in what is certainly a first in my own Facebook experience, the museum posted a stern statement on its Facebook page that reads as follows:
We are now closing the page for the day [yes, “closing the page”!], but it will open again tomorrow, Thursday, at 9 A.M. Hold on to your comments until then. If this page is spammed in the meanwhile, or if anyone engages in unfair debates or propaganda, these comments will be removed from the page and those responsible will be reported to Facebook. We want to have an open debate, in which there is room for more people! So weigh your words – and have a peaceful afternoon and evening.
Note, if you will, that blatant Orwellian contradiction between the museum’s claim to welcome “open debate” and its threat to shut down any debate it doesn’t care for. And note, too, the hint of menace in that injunction to “weigh your words.” Here’s a screen capture of this odious posting:

In other words, a major Norwegian museum is threatening to report to Facebook anyone who dares to express concern about (among other things) its eager and unquestioning involvement in the dissemination of shameless Islamic propaganda, its partnership with a firm whose strongest ties are with Islamic dictatorships, and the possibility that it has had unsavory financial dealings with the most repellent of all those dictatorships.

When I checked the museum’s Facebook page on Thursday evening, I found only one exchange that touched on such questions. Addressing a reader’s question as to whether the exhibition is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, the museum employee who responded insisted that “the exhibition is self-financed” (whatever that is supposed to mean) and referred to MTE as the show’s “producer” (a somewhat odd way to refer to the people who put together a museum exhibition). As a friend of mine pointed out, since the present exhibition is apparently, at the very least, based in large part on one that was created on commission for Saudi Arabia, and is essentiallly identical to another exhibition that is currently on display at a mall in Dubai, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Saudis are direct sponsors of this show or whether the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology has received cash or any other form of direct or indirect support from them or the United Arab Emirates or anyone else; the fact is that the show in Oslo is, to all intents and purposes, the product of Saudi and Emirate propaganda funding.

Somebody on Facebook had the following to say about this vexing situation: “A public institution that threatens to report critics to Facebook administrators…that’s something I never would have thought possible in Norway.” Well, we’d all better get used to it – or start making a lot of noise about this nasty business in other public fora before they get closed down, too.

Bruce Bawer


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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