Friday, August 21, 2009

Knowledge and its discontents in the Islamic World

Al Jazeera's Arabic language satellite feed featured an interesting debate the other day. A talk show, called al-Itijah al-Mouaakes (Cross Current), features opposite and competing arguments to issues of interest to Arabs and the Middle Eastern region in general. The theme of this particular show was 'public sex education' - a controversial topic in the culturally and religiously conservative region.

The point that struck me was not the debate on the topic itself (although interesting to be sure), but how fast the conversation shifted from whether public sex education was a good or bad thing, to a heated argument on the merits of the sources used to understand human sexuality in the first place.

The debaters were as far apart in their opinions as they were in their backgrounds and qualifications. One was a religious professor at Egypt's famed Al-Azhar University - widely regarded as the heart of Islamic learning in the world; the other a secular Egyptian intellectual and medical researcher.

The Islamic scholar argued that Islamic texts, traditions, and culture, provided ample answers to the modern problems and questions of human sexuality required to ensure the healthy, and above all, "moral" preservation of society. The secular researcher would have none of it, and fervently defended his position: secular knowledge has evolved in the past centuries to tackle complex issues and problems about the world we live in that traditional sources of knowledge could no longer adequately answer - sexology was a byproduct of this phenomenon and should be embraced, not rejected.

The show ended with both debaters no closer - and by all accounts, even farther - from reaching a concensus than when they had started. But what is the relevance of this story?

For me, the debate was reflective of the overall struggle for knowledge, and power, existing between two social groups in the Middle East. Claiming authoritative knowledge determines who does the research, for what aims, and how it is interpreted and ultimatelly applied. Secularists will continue to deny the legitimacy of many traditional sources of knowledge to answer modern problems of the social world we live in. Traditionalists will relentlessly accuse secular knowledge to be innaplicable to Islamic norms, values and social order at best, and as a cunning ploy by the West for internal domination of the Islamic world at worst.

add-on: some broad comparisons can be made with the Big-Bang vs. Creationism controversy that was raging in the American public education system.

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