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New knowledge networks are attempting to make sense of a world dominated by tradition and belief, yet hungry for equity and justice. From Cairo to Islamabad via London, Ehsan Masood maps its emerging ideas, debates and institutions.
Tariq Ramadan's audiences are famously diverse. Those who hang on the Swiss Islamic reformer's every word include college-going Muslim men and women; policymakers and think-tankers in cities such as London and Washington, even the very authoritarian governments in the middle east from where Ramadan is mostly banned.Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and teaches international science policy at Imperial College London on BBC Radio 4 based on the book. For details, click here
His most recent book is Science and Islam: A History ( Icon, 2009). He presented a three-part series
He is the editor of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press, 2006) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press, 2006). He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council / Association of Muslim Social Scientists, (2007)
Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:
"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (11 August 2005)
"British Muslims must stop the war" (30 August 2005)
"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (29 November 2005)
"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (13 December 2005)
"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (5 July 2006)
"Africans and climate change" (7 February 2007)
"Muslims and multiculturalism: lessons from Canada" (7 March 2007)
"A German vision: greening globalisation" (28 March 2007)
"Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)
"The wages of punditry" (30 April 2007)
Each of these constituencies will be delving into Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation,a long awaited volume and Ramadan's first scholarly-focused book since his move to St Antony's College, Oxford University. It is ambitious and broad in what it wants to achieve. At times it is highly accessible and at other times technical.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part takes the reader through the history of reform in Islam's first few centuries. Reform is often seen as a post-colonial project. But the early chapters in his book demonstrate that calls for change within Islam have a much older history. In the later chapters Ramadan sets out his own thinking on how an Islamic ethics could apply to modern innovation.
He recognises that the majority of Islamic scholars have little or no training in science or in areas such as bioethics or environmental affairs. He wants them to brush up on advances in modern biology. And he wants them to knock on the doors of ethics committees and make their voices heard alongside other faiths in public debates on science and the environment. He is particularly angry that the states and citizens of Islamic countries have done so little on climate change. Until relatively recently, for example, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were solidly behind the United States in questioning a human fingerprint in global warming.
More surprisingly, however, Ramadan comes down hard on the global Islamic finance industry. This is unexpected because Islamic finance is widely regarded as a rare successful example of the application of Islamic innovation to modern life. Ramadan, however, thinks the industry is not radical enough: he challenges its architects to be bolder and think about whether Islamic ethics in finance has a role, not just to provide interest-free home loans, but in shaping the world's financial architecture.
A space for influence
Tariq Ramadan often tells his many audiences not to lose sight of context when interpreting religious texts. But more context is the one thing that this book could have benefited from - especially in the later chapters.
Cutting-edge innovation in Islamic societies may not be on the scale found in developed societies, and it may not always be inspired by the practice of Islam. It is often an organic, demand-led, bottom-up process. And once in a while, it is world-class. But reading Radical Reform, you get no sense of this. Nor do you get a sense of the multidimensional nature of the practice and study of ethics in Islamic societies today.
It is correct to say that bioethics is a relatively weak field of study and practice in the Islamic world, when compared with more developed countries. But in many countries, universities, government ministries, councils of Islamic scholars and teaching hospitals are alive with debate and discussion. This will increase as spending on science goes up and as governance and regulatory systems become more sophisticated.
At the same time Ramadan ought to have given some credit to the immense activity in the Islamic world - including scholarly literature and policy-thinking - on how to alleviate poverty. The scale of activity on the ground makes sense because countries with large Muslim populations are also among the world's poorest. And a few ideas have truly been world-changing. Microfinance schemes, such as the Grameen Bank, as well as the Human Development Index, which measures quality of life, were developed by individuals (Muhammad Yunus and Mahbub ul Haq respectively) with roots in the Islamic world.
That said, Radical Reform is all set to become an influential text - even if the ideas it contains do not contain any huge leaps of the imagination, nor great shifting paradigms. It is a book of instruction intended at audiences who are looking for a scholarly steer in their lives.
Early Islamic history has no shortage of truly radical reformers. The problem is that their work is largely forgotten. By contrast, reformers who adopted a more incrementalist approach have had a longer shelf-life and more of an impact on mainstream communities. That is the space Tariq Ramadan wants to occupy.
The partnership between policy-makers and development specialists can endanger the latter's intellectual independence and increase the risk of bad outcomes, says Ehsan Masood.
Canada is tuning into Europe's debate on Muslims. But it doesn't want to abandon its own model for living with diversity at least for now, reports Ehsan Masood.
"What do you think of the debate in Britain about Muslims who live in communities of extended families and friends?"
The leading educational and scientific magazine "National Geographic" is launching an Arabic edition aimed at young readers. A perfect match, says Ehsan Masood.
The worlds leading climate scientists have spoken. But science on its own is not enough to convince Africas heads of state that they need to act on global warming, finds Ehsan Masood.
A solution to the world's water crisis may lie in the sewers of 19th-century England and America, says Ehsan Masood.
A new education policy in Pakistan signals a shift from the idea of Urdu as the country's everyday working language, says Ehsan Masood.
Are private schools the answer to the crisis in Pakistani education? Ehsan Masood reports on a controversial reform proposal.
If the world is at last alert to global warming, it is thanks in part to a remarkable group of researchers. Ehsan Masood salutes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
How should developing countries relate to their diaspora communities? Ehsan Masood tracks a growing discussion with vital policy implications.
Muslim citizens bruised by the British government's punitive new tone towards them need to register the lessons of the last generation and not merely the last month, says Ehsan Masood.
Cosmology is hot, string theory is not. But wherever you hang your hat, the teaching of science must keep pace with the subjects moving intellectual frontiers, says Ehsan Masood.
Creative commons, open source and open access are becoming influential buzzwords of the digital age. But are they a just reward for creative endeavour, asks Ehsan Masood.
A deeper reading of Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech suggests a message that Catholics and Muslims can share, says Ehsan Masood: that modern science must make room for theology.
England gave the world cricket. But the power to shape the game's rules is moving to the nations of the developing world, says Ehsan Masood.
The corporate media is worried about falling audiences among people of non-western backgrounds. It only has itself to blame, says Ehsan Masood.
A global target for all of the world's children to have a primary school education is within sight. But world leaders do not deserve the credit, says Ehsan Masood.
A new Action Aid report on the negative aspects of technical assistance to developing countries tells only half the story, says Ehsan Masood.
A survey of the British Muslim landscape one year on from the London bombs of 7 July 2005 suggests to Ehsan Masood that even the recent past is becoming another country.
The declassified story of Washingtons 1969 deal with Tel Aviv over Israel's development of nuclear weapons casts fresh light on its current dispute with Iran, says Ehsan Masood.
An innovative department within Britain's foreign office is attempting to win friends and influence by building bridges with the Islamic world, reports Ehsan Masood.
Ziauddin Sardar is one of the most prolific and influential Muslim writers in Britain. He tells Ehsan Masood, who has edited a new collection of his writings, about his vision of pluralist Islam, the Qur'an as guide not manual, and the future of European Muslims.
As the international Biovision 2006 conference meets in Alexandria, Egypt to discuss the application of life sciences to human development, Ehsan Masood visits a school for blind children in the city where the commitment of voluntary staff to overcome perennial funding difficulties is unwavering.
Sceptical scientists and committed believers have one thing in common: they both desperately want science to unlock the mysteries of religion, says Ehsan Masood.
An empowered community of participating citizens is the ideal of much international development and public policy. But, asks Ehsan Masood, what happens if the people at its heart lack the resources needed to make it work?
The intimate link between linguistic and biological diversity makes the struggle to defend both essential to a sustainable human and planetary future, says Ehsan Masood.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference is seeking to re-equip itself to play an active, engaged role in the global political arena. Ehsan Masood assesses the challenge facing the OIC's secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
The director of Egypt's great new library, Ismail Serageldin, is shaping an educational project that is rooted in the neglected tradition of Islamic rationalism. Ehsan Masood meets him.
The contrast between the "Satanic Verses" affair of 1989 and the cartoon controversy of 2006 shows how far Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain have travelled, says Ehsan Masood.
The American scientific elite is on a mission to make science a politics-free zone, but Ehsan Masood asks if the evidence of government "interference" in science is all it seems.
A new mathematics prize seeks to reward top talent from the developing world without encouraging a global brain-drain. The west should look and learn, says Ehsan Masood.
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