In A.D. 642, as legend has it, the Caliph Omar commanded that all the books in the Great Library of Alexandria be burned as fuel to heat the city. The city fathers begged him to spare what was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. With diabolical logic, Omar refused.
"The Koran is the source of all wisdom," said the Caliph. "So if these books all agree with the Koran, they are redundant and thus can be burned. If they disagree, then they are heretical and thus should be burned."
The story is apocryphal, but it underscores the Western perception of Islam as a religion and culture hostile to knowledge, particularly the sciences and technology. That's not quite true. Islam does embrace breakthrough science and innovative technologies -- but only on its own terms. This has profound -- and troubling -- implications for the West and its relationships with the Islamic world.
"The objection that people have in the Moslem world is not to modern science but science as defined by Western scientists and that the extent to which becoming a scientific and technological society requires you to become Western," observes John Voll, an Islamic scholar at the University of New Hampshire. "This is a very critical question that gets to the whole issue of modernization, and it spans the entire spectrum of Islam."
In other words, the issue is less an inherent contempt for science and technology than contempt for the West. Science and Islam can comfortably coexist. As Osman Shinaishan, the National Science Foundation's senior program manager for South and West Asia, points out, science and engineering research prospers in India and Pakistan, both with significant Moslem populations. Competent research is under way in Malaysia and Indonesia. Contrary to Western views that Iran's fundamentalist Islamic revolution obliterated its scientific establishment, Shinaishan, an Egyptian-born Moslem, reports, "Iranian scientists are tackling everything."
Although Islamic nations tend to lag the West in the sciences, Shinaishan asserts, "To attribute the decline of science and technology to Islamic religious belief is just wrong."
Nonetheless, Michael P. Adas, a professor at Rutgers University, notes, "The Moslem world is still overwhelmingly hung up on this point of how much technology it should take." This issue haunts virtually every aspect of Islamic life. What role should science and technology play in agriculture and economic development? In national security? Should these technologies be "Western"? Or can they be Islamic? Will Islam reshape technology or will technology reshape Islam? As surely as Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" can incite cries of blasphemy in today's Moslem world, so can science and technology.
So where the West comfortably views its economic superiority through the prism of technology, Islam remains restlessly ambivalent. This is particularly true in the Middle East. In contrast to resource-poor Japan, the oil-rich Persian Gulf states did not consistently invest in developing their own technological capabilities, preferring to buy expertise rather than internally nurture it. More secular Islamic countries, such as Iraq, are better at adapting Western technology than more devout countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Ironically, Western technology has enabled Saddam Hussein to practice his regional thuggery. The Middle East seems more comfortable with technology as a vehicle of destruction than as medium for economic development.
In part because the Middle East has rejected the Western -- and Asian -- models for economic development, it finds itself locked in regional rivalries, class struggles and religious ferment. The Islamic world's inability to successfully integrate technology into its culture -- militarily and otherwise -- continues to exacerbate both its internal troubles and its conflicts with the West.
The West isn't dealing with a geopolitical challenge in the Middle East; it's dealing with a geocultural challenge. Unlike Marxist ideology, Islam is a powerful, vibrant and meaningful force for more than a billion people. It will become more influential before it becomes less influential on the world stage. To the extent the West treats this challenge as "regional" or as a battle between "wealthy" oil nations and their impoverished neighbors, it is making a huge miscalculation. A Saddam Hussein understands this and positions himself accordingly.
So whether Iraq is brought to its knees by military force, whether oil is $15 per barrel or $75, whether the Palestinians have a homeland or Israel withdraws to behind pre-1967 borders, the Islamic world still will roil with tension and dissent. Islam is struggling to redefine itself in a world where science and technology have changed the vocabulary. The West can't impose a definition -- and it probably can't even suggest one.
The West may choose to exploit these tensions by strategically offering and withholding technology to alter the balance of power -- as the United States did for Iraq during its war with Iran. Or it may choose to technologically quarantine much of the Islamic world -- much as the NATO alliance isolated the Soviet bloc. Perhaps the West may even go through the trouble of understanding the multiple dynamics of Islam and craft policies likely to minimize cultural conflicts than exacerbate them.
But no matter which course the West chooses, the nations of Islam will decide for themselves what their relationships with science and technology will be. As current events indicate, those decisions probably will cause a great deal of pain and anguish -- both for Islam and the West.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.