Analysis - Socio-Cultural Interactions

Possible Explanations

Is there a Relationship between Applied Sciences and Fanaticism?

: Saeed al-Masri

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Possible Explanations

Upon examining the educational background of some forty-three prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, one will find that thirty of them (70 percent) have degrees in the natural sciences, specifically in medicine, engineering and science. Only eight (19 percent) of these highly educated Muslim Brotherhood leaders are specialized in social and human sciences, whereas five are specialized in other disciplines. Among those specialized in natural science disciplines, 21 leaders (49 percent) obtained higher academic degrees, i.e. Masters and PhDs, and at least five of these twenty one leaders obtained their degrees from Western universities. What is ironic is that only two leaders in the Brotherhood's leadership hierarchy, Abdul Rahman Al Ber and Sayyid Askar, pursued religious studies.

The cited figures indicate that the religious pivot of the largest political Islamist organization rests strongly on secular education, not religious education= or Sharia studies or social science disciplines. In fact, when none of those in the leadership hierarchy of the Brotherhood has an educational background in philosophy or Arabic literature, an issue emerges about the relationship between natural science, religious fundamentalism and Islamic extremist.

One would ask how people trained in the empirical approach become fanatics and extremists, develop a fanatic concept about their society and dream about an imagined Islamic society. In other words, how can probability theory produce a determinist view about human existence and fuel this view with ideological clouds?

FIRST: Possible Explanations

This phenomenon can be analyzed from various angles. The most prominent of these, is the extent of freedom in the society that is reflected in the relationship between religion and science in general and inside religious organizations specifically.    

In other words, in societies that exalt freedom, critical thinking has a wider room while “certainist” (dogmatic) thinking recedes; and in societies that impose restrictions on freedom, certainist thinking prevails. Under these restrictions, science turns into a profession and the researchers-turned-professionals are lost in the systematic use of scientific rules that they have memorized e. For the scientist that turns into a religious fundamentalist, religion becomes a life mission, a pivot and a perspective through which (s)he view the whole world and try to employ science in a bid to validate their absolute religious beliefs and values.

This is what happened in Arab societies in the 1970s when highly educated Islamist scientist including physicians, geologists, astronomers and engineers attempted to Islamize knowledge and promote the Holy Quran’s scientific miracles at a time when religious scholars failed to develop their rhetoric. However, Europe and the United States witnessed the same phenomenon in late 19th century and early 20th century, and it was not surprising then to know that two of the most famous Nobel Prize laureates, physicist Arthur Holly Compton, and experimental physicist Robert Andrews Millikan, wrote books of religious nature to defend the argument that, according to Compton, “in their essence there can be no conflict between science and religion.”

But religious education has long been the essence, as well as the form, of education in Arab countries for centuries. It drove scientific renaissance between the 8th century and 13th century. We also should note that Rifa'a al-Tahtawi and Muhammad Abduh who were among the leading figures of this Enlightenment Movement, received religious education. That is why the relationship between science and religion is highly intricate and complicated, and the more overlapping the relationship between science and religion, the more extremism and fanaticism on both sides, and even more so, estrangement. And when the same individual upholds both religious and scientific extremism, there emerges a mixture of fanatic views and perceptions that rest more heavily on religion than is related to science.

SECOND: The Fusion of Scientific and Religious Fundamentalism

Despite the fact that fanaticism is a human phenomenon that is not limited to religiousness and does have multiple aspects demonstrating the emotional and extremist attitudes, religious fundamentalism stands alone with specific types of fanatical thinking, particularly in connection with fundamentals of creed or system of beliefs that influences the whole perception of the world. In other words, fanatics have absolute belief in their cause and would avoid involving themselves in debates, criticism, and oppose diversity of opinion. And not only are they content with upholding their own rigidly defined beliefs, they also seek to impose them on others. For them, others are either with them or against them.

That is where fanaticism is at its highest when all religious fundamentalists become totally committed to sacrifice and martyrdom as a way to achieve the goals they firmly believe in and seek to reach. Furthermore, when a fundamentalist is a researcher in one of the natural science disciplines, it is truly hard for his/her mind to maintain both fanatical and free critical thinking at the same time. But while it seems impossible for the two diametrically-opposed to coexist, fanatical thinking in religious fundamentalism does meet scientific fundamentalism (or scientism). 

Scientific fundamentalism is another form of fanatical thinking that relies heavily on the extreme belief in the scientific method defined as a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge, as well as the absolute belief in applying this method to all domains. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry is commonly based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. However, scientific fundamentalism relies also on the Aristotelian traditional system of logic expounded by Aristotle and is concerned chiefly with deductive reasoning as expressed in syllogisms. 

A syllogism is a kind of logical argument that applies deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are asserted or assumed to be true. Syllogisms were at the core of traditional deductive reasoning, where facts are determined by combining existing statements, in contrast to inductive reasoning where facts are determined by repeated observations.

In Aristotelian logic, where premises lead to specific results and conclusions is what can be described as categorical thinking. In other words, this strict, linear and one-dimensional Aristotelian way of thinking in which either/or logic divides everything in the world into dualities like “either with or against”, ignores or arbitrarily forces shades of gray into either black or white, is based also on the belief in an inevitable function of the system, pattern or structure composed of closely-connected elements.

A scientific fundamentalist embraces linear thinking defined as an organized process of thought following known cycles or step-by-step progression to a specific conclusion, and seen as a result of “ultra positivism” that categorically reduces human existence to a pattern that can be simply designed, assembled or dis-assembled. This explains why a scientific researcher coming from a religious fundamentalist background is strongly attracted to scientific fundamentalism where he/she would use abstract statistics, measurements, readings as well as all empirical rules in a typical and standardized manner.  

Hence the development of double fanaticism is the result of fusion between scientific fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism into a mindset that is totally self-satisfied and consistent with what may seem inconsistent. 

THIRD: Religious Fundamentalism Resorts to Science

It is natural for religious fundamentalism to strongly resort to, and employ science to achieve its own goals. This is conducted by attracting the scientific elite based on the notion of prestige and influence that science has in society due to its rhetoric and methodological tools of measurement and experimentation. These reasons are seen as strengths in the bid to confirm social status and enhance inducement of others that is exactly what religious fundamentalists need to consolidate their power and arguments in their societies.

The old perception about clerics who do not have the faintest knowledge about modern sciences is no longer acceptable for religious organizations growing at the heart of the middle class in Arab societies. And in light of massive knowledge flows, scientific authority has become a threat to religious authority. That is particularly why the Muslim Brotherhood relied on an elite of natural scientists who became an integrated part of its appearance and a main tool in its bid to expand its prevalence, popularity, and confirm its ubiquitous presence throughout the society.

At the mindset level, when leaders of religious fundamentalism practice their scientific jobs at universities, everything looks consistent with both the centrality of creed and the appearances of scientific behavior which are not in conflict; because the deep structure of thinking is fundamentalist and would take from science only whatever bolsters its existence and respectability. In which case, we should not assume that there is an intellectual conflict between a critical mindset that is deeply involved in scientific research, on the one hand, and a fundamentalist mindset that is deeply rooted in the strong belief in a set of firm fundamentals of creed or belief system, on the other.

On a final note, when religious fundamentalism infiltrates into a “scientific society”, it is difficult for it to attract individuals most influenced by critical thinking.  Instead it targets those loyal to religion and the relations of loyalty inside religious groups. It is therefore enough for these to obtain, as much scientific knowledge as they think is enough to support their religious project, while their bonds with science are reduced to outward appearances. It is also rare to find among them internationally recognized scientists or winners of international scientific awards. A quick look into international publications would be enough to reveal that their scientific contributions are so little. In this manner, the scientific elite of the fundamentalist religious organizations serves only as a superficial garment that adds misleading radiance to a body immersed in ideological certainism and positivism.

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