Next month, Prof. Ada Yonath will be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, becoming the fifth Israeli scientist to win this award. This has sharpened, once again, the grim statistics regarding the scarcity of Nobel laureates in the Muslim and Arab worlds. While Jews, who are only around 0.2 percent of the world population, have won a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded in the sciences, Muslims, who are one quarter of the world population, have won only a handful, even by the most generous accounts. And while relative to its size, Israel's tiny academia has been the world's leading Nobel power over the past decade, Arab universities have yet to produce their first Nobel laureate.
Israelis and Jews worldwide consider these awards a source of pride - and rightly so. It's always nice to be on a winning team. Muslims and Arabs view these numbers as a source of shame and even soul-searching. Even Muslim religious scholars who portray Western political systems, social foundations and cultural achievements as manifestations of infidel entities in decay recognize that the West's huge scientific and technological edge must be narrowed. Some openly discuss Israel's scientific achievements to encourage their followers to become more academically competitive.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM offers a conventional explanation for the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes in science awarded to Jews and Israelis: the "Jewish genius," whereas Muslims and Arabs fail because they live under dictatorships. This explanation is not completely detached from reality, but is, nevertheless, not sufficient.
The truth is that a certain type of Jew has won Nobel Prizes. These Jewish laureates drew on a Jewish heritage that dedicates itself to learning, reveres scholars and places intellectual demands on its young people. But these laureates were also modern Jews, open to modern sciences and rational thinking, and keen on making their way in the greater world that exists beyond their communities. Remove one part of this equation - heritage or modernity - and the "Jewish genius" vanishes.
This particular type of Jew is a nearly extinct species. Secular Jews, especially secular Israelis, are increasingly detached from the heritage of giving primacy to education and scholarship. They are inundated by a culture that reveres instant celebrity, shameless greed and utter stupidity. Observant Jews, especially observant Israelis, are increasingly facing trends that are hostile toward rationality, suspicious of modernity and indifferent to the merits of scientific experimentation.
Many lament the reduction in funds earmarked for sciences in Israel. But this is the symptom, not the disease. Where scientists receive no respect, they also receive little or no money. To continue winning Nobel Prizes, the Jewish world in general (and the State of Israel in particular) need more than financial resources. They need to defend and cultivate the particular kind of Jew who has been awarded one out of every four Nobel Prizes. And they must do so without caving in to political correctness or cultural relativism.
The case of the Muslim and Arab worlds also evokes a discussion. It is a historical fact that authoritarian regimes and dictatorships have produced inferior scientific achievements in comparison to liberal, open societies. Until its collapse, the Soviet Union lagged scientifically and technologically behind the United States; the gap increasingly widened and eventually led to the breakdown of the communist empire. However, the Soviet Union did excel in some sciences and produced many brilliant academics. The same holds for other non-democratic regimes.
Today, Stalinist North Korea sells technology to Stalinist Syria, not the other way round. Thus, the lack of political pluralism accounts for part of the Muslim and Arab scientific failures. But it does not explain why they are so absolute.
Another explanation is the lack of religious and intellectual freedom in most Muslim societies, where religious scholars have monopolized the spiritual and the metaphysical in a way that disrupts scientific progress. What does a monopoly of the spiritual and the metaphysical have to do with the study of chemistry or physics? Everything. Science can only flourish in a culture that does not recognize any taboos and constantly doubts creeds of all sorts. Nobel laureates cannot grow from cultures that raise kids from an early age to never question a certain conceptualization of reality.
This does not imply that science and religion are not commensurable; some of the world's greatest scientists have been deeply religious. But it is almost impossible for great scientific minds to exhaust their potential in societies where the clergy have ultimate control over intellectual quests.
IN THE late 19th century, a reform movement emerged in the Muslim world. It recognized that for Muslims to embark on an age of renaissance, modern sciences must be embraced. Reformists endeavored to convince Muslims that modern sciences do not contradict Islam - and were quite successful in doing so. This school, developed by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, is often mistakenly described as liberal; in fact, its primary goal was to defend Islam against Western hegemony. It aspired to offer a theological framework that would allow Muslims to be part of modernity without compromising their belief in the comprehensive essence of Islam.
The one thing these reformers never intended to do was to release society from the shackles of religious scriptures monopolized by religious establishments. And ironically enough, it is exactly because Afghani and Abduh's relatively modern and relatively tolerant school of thought became so influential - appeasing the minds of so many Muslims that religion can indeed encompass every aspect of modernity - that the Arab intellectual world is still locked in a spirit of taboo and fear.
Some 100 years ago, it was possible, although risky, for an Arab to doubt whether the Koran was a divine text. Any Arab who does so today would be signing his own death warrant. Sadly enough, many contemporary Western intellectuals also think twice before discussing Muslim creed. Where particular aspects of life, such as religion, cannot be openly debated, thorough scientific investigation is impossible.
Contemporary Arab religious scholars commonly offer apologias that attribute Western scientific achievements to the intellectual legacy an ungrateful West inherited from the Muslim world. By doing so, they shut their eyes to the deep historical context of Western renaissance. Contemporary leading Arab universities produce books and essays that depict Darwin, Freud, Marx and other brilliant modern minds as part of a Jewish conspiracy to bring about the downfall of humanity. By doing so, they distract their audiences from entire fields of scientific study.
Despite whatever racists imply, there is nothing essential about Muslims or Arabs that prevents them from winning Nobel Prizes. But for a scientific revolution to occur in these regions, more than political reform is needed. Rather, true intellectual freedom must be established. Since this is nowhere in sight, my hope - in fact, my guess - is that the first Muslim affiliated with a Middle Eastern university to win a Nobel Prize will be an Arab-Israeli. And he or she will teach Jews and Muslims alike a very valuable lesson.
The writer is director of Programs in Democracy at the Adelson Institute. This article was first published by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, at the Shalem Center, www.adelsoninstitute.org