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Alexandria's bridge

Ehsan Masood
28 February 2006

Ismail Serageldin, judging by the after-midnight emails he fires off to his colleagues, doesn't get much sleep. More recently, the director of Egypt's national library in Alexandria has been putting in even more hours than usual, as he prepares for the opening of an institute for peace under the library's wing – the first peace-studies centre in a predominantly Muslim country. I visited him at his office in the ancient Mediterranean city on the eve of the institute's launch by the chair of the library's board of governors (and wife of the country's president), Suzanne Mubarak. In Egypt, education and power are intertwined; Serageldin's wager is that the first can be a guide not just to a better understanding, but to a better use, of the second.

The new institute in Alexandria – site of the great library damaged or destroyed several times in earlier centuries – will explore the issues of peace, conflict and reconciliation from the perspective of Arabs and Muslims. It will work closely with the United Nations-affiliated University for Peace, based in Costa Rica (a democratic country which is unique in Latin America, and rare in the world, for having no armed forces).

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books to be published in 2006: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (August 2005)

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"A post-Satanic journey" (February 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The larger institution that will contain the peace centre is itself one of the outstanding architectural and educational projects of the age. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built on a site adjacent to that of the original library at a cost of $60 million and opened in 2002. If its practical impact matches its visual, Alexandria promises to become one of the 21st century's intellectual powerhouses.

The architecture proclaims its ambition. The disc-shaped main building denotes a rising sun that appears to rise out of the water. One side of the building is a granite wall engraved with individual letters from 120 languages, representing intercultural dialogue. At the library entrance, a bust of Prometheus represents shared connections to the past. Beside it, rows of olive trees evoke peace. From it, an elevated walkway leads from the library to the Mediterranean coastline – a visual symbol of the linkage between Africa and Europe.

The purpose of these design elements is to embody the Bibliotheca Alexandria's threefold mission: to become a centre of excellence for knowledge; to be the world's window on Egypt, and Egypt's window on the world; and to provide space for open conversation between people and cultures.

The library complex itself combines the traditional and the innovative. It includes a planetarium, a children's science centre, several museums, a library for the blind and partially-sighted, research institutes and a centre for the digitisation of manuscripts. These reflect two of the major focuses of its work.

The first is to encourage young people to read more, to have the confidence to ask questions, to be able to conduct research online, and to dabble in practical science experiments. Most of the library's one million visitors each year come from Egypt's state schools. The majority of these children have never seen the inside of a good library, or had access to experimental science facilities in school. "We have to bring people into the library for the first time, because they are not used to just coming on their own", says Hoda El Mikaty, head of science.

The second focus is to encourage the library's staff to work with people and organisations in other countries – both developed and developing. Ismail Serageldin wants the library to do more than host regular events on intercultural dialogue – he wants his staff to live the dream. One project, which I am involved with, provides small grants to younger scientists from Egypt's universities to carry out advanced research in the natural sciences. An important criterion for success is for the younger Egyptian researchers to find a partner in a recognised institution abroad.

The home and the world

People make institutions as well as being made by them. Serageldin's role in shaping the Alexandria library seems so central that it is interesting to recall how fortuitous was his return to the country of his birth.

After a doctorate in architecture from Harvard University in 1972, Serageldin went to work for the World Bank in Washington DC. He directed many of the bank's Africa projects and by the 1990s he was a vice-president in charge of the environment department and running the bank's affiliated network of nineteen agricultural-research centres, mostly in developing countries (known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research).

In 1998, Serageldin was a candidate to become director-general of the United Nations' science and education agency (Unesco) in Paris. His strong support among the international academic community was reflected in the endorsement of his candidacy by fifty Nobel laureates and members of civil-society groups. But Serageldin had a rival in Saudi Arabia's ambassador to London, Ghazi Algosaibi, a prominent writer as well as a diplomat (alongside his poetry he is author of Yes Saudi Minister: A Life in Administration and The Dilemma of Development). These two candidates split the votes of African and Arab states, and a third – current incumbent Koichiro Matsuura, a former head of Japan's international development agency – came through the middle.

In the event, Seragledin's reformist drive was to be applied in his Egyptian homeland, where he lost little time in persuading the library's governing body that the institution needed to become an important voice among others (in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example) in pioneering calls for change in the Arab world.

The results became clear in March 2004, when more than 150 representatives from civil-society groups, alongside thinkers and writers from eighteen countries, came to Alexandria and drafted the "Alexandria Declaration". The document calls for more rights and freedoms for citizens of Arab countries, faster political reform, and an end to United States or European meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states. On the last point, Serageldin comments: "Reform must come, but it must be homegrown. External support is welcome, but not a new form of tutelage."

An Islamic age of reason

In the era of wars over terrorism and Iraq, and loose talk of "clash of civilisations", the connection between ideas, education and power is inextricable. The Alexandria library owes its very existence to the Mubarak family, the Egyptian government, and Arab states such as Libya and Saudi Arabia. Yet Serageldin is a public servant who also represents a movement of opinion and values that puts him at odds with major parts of the apparatus of the current Egyptian state (such as censors and secret police). This is no ivory tower, and of all Serageldin's projects it carries the greatest risk.

In a changing society, one group in Egyptian public life is not as engaged with the Alexandria library as it could be. The Islamists, whose main political force – the Muslim Brotherhood – made significant gains in Egypt's elections in 2005 and now constitute the main opposition bloc in parliament there (as in the parliaments of Jordan and Kuwait), do not figure prominently in the library's networks. Serageldin says Islamists have always been invited to take part (for example, in the processes leading to the Alexandria Declaration) but have until now opted to stay away.

This may well be because Serageldin himself is not a fan of Islamism. In a 2005 speech, published in the book Inventing our future: essays on freedom, governance and reform in the Arab world, he described how Egypt is locked in a three-way tug-of-war between existing statist forces, liberals and Islamists; if the last group were victorious, says Serageldin, they would "take us back to a theocratic form of government in which the rights of women and minorities are trampled afoot".

Yet this description describes only one current within Islamism, a discourse that today includes a much broader set of intellectual opinions and political options than in the era of its founders. One of its leading contemporary thinkers is Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Hassan al-Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. Ramadan argues for an Islamic theology for the modern age, one that incorporates much greater rights for women and minorities, and an enhanced role for reason.

The government of Turkey's Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP / Justice & Development Party), which has steered its country to the gates of the European Union since its election in November 2002, is another example of an Islamist movement that combines commitment to religious doctrine with democratic principles and progressive social ideas.

Tariq Ramadan and Turkey's AKP are in effect among Islam's newer rationalists. So too is Ismail Serageldin. His roots may not be in Islamism, but he is located within Islam's own deep-rooted rationalist tradition, which as long as 1,200 years ago (as discussed in openDemocracy by Farhang Jahanpour) was helping to develop humanity's understanding of science and technology

What is more, Serageldin is careful to identify himself as belonging inside this tradition. He recognises that scientific discovery in Islam's early centuries took place in an atmosphere where there was relative freedom of inquiry, and an openness to different points of view on some of the most contentious subjects of the day. Like contemporary rationalist thinkers within the Islamic tradition such as Ziauddin Sardar and Tariq Ramadan himself, he sees these as inherently Islamic values.

In a speech on Islam, science and values entitled Science: the culture of living change, Serageldin once quoted the 13th-century Syrian physician Ibn al-Nafis (among the first to have discovered blood circulation) on the importance of listening to contrary views: "When hearing something unusual, do not pre-emptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may turn out to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because people say it is."

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