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An Interview with Jörg Matthias Determann

Jörg Matthias Determann is an assistant professor of history in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. His work has focused on global history in general, as well as the history of science and scholarship in Muslim-majority countries. The editors of Oxford Islamic Studies Online had the opportunity to discuss recent developments in the Gulf States and how they will impact education, research, and international relations.

Much of your research focuses on institutions of higher learning in Saudi Arabia, a country viewed by many in the West as particularly repressive and anti-democratic. And yet, as you state, the field of history in particular has provided a medium for dissenting voices within the country. Can you discuss some of the examples of this dissent?

When I first started researching historiography in Saudi Arabia, I came across many publications by government organizations, as they were the most readily available. At first glance, many of these history books told the same story: a narrative that focused on the royal family and its creation of a first Saudi state during the eighteenth century, a second Saudi state during the nineteenth century, and finally the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the twentieth century. Areas or periods without Saudi rule and beyond the reach of the Wahhabi mission were often marginalized and described in negative terms of ignorance and division, in contrast to the true religion and unity brought by the House of Saud and the family of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

However, as I read state-sponsored publications more carefully and, during fieldwork, came across many privately published works, I discovered a surprising plurality in historical narratives. Some historians, who had completed their postgraduate education in America with the aid of Saudi government scholarships, questioned the extent of religious ignorance in pre-Wahhabi Arabia and explained the rise of the first Saudi state partly with a previous rise in religious learning. Various non-professional historians also reclaimed the history of regions distant from the Saudi capital and asserted the importance of previously marginalized groups, including the Shia and different tribes, in the unification and development of the country.

In the areas of both science and history, you emphasize the impact of international networks. How exactly have these influenced education and research in the region? And how have some of the local governments reacted to this?

The countries forming the Gulf Cooperation Council enjoyed a wealth of natural resources, but had relatively few qualified nationals to develop modern states and economies. Therefore, they relied more than many other countries on imported expertise and labor. In many fields of education and research, the first generation of professionals largely consisted of foreigners who were supposed to train nationals. As a result, the natural sciences have mostly been taught in English rather than Arabic at the university level. Scientific research has also been published mostly in English, with Arabic newspapers and magazines often struggling to catch up in their reports of new discoveries. Committed to rapid development, Gulf governments facilitated the international circulation of researchers, but rarely awarded citizenship to foreign residents. Partly because of their lack of full integration into Gulf societies, many scientists continued to follow foreign models rather than contributing to distinctly local schools or traditions of research. They were, however, often aware of the sensitivity of certain subjects, such as evolution, in local contexts.

Evolution remains a very contentious issue in the Middle East, largely because of its association with atheism and its contradiction of certain literal interpretations of Scripture. But the way many Arabs view evolution deviates from, say, creationists in the Bible Belt of the United States. Can you give a brief explanation of how evolution is received in this region? What exactly are people rejecting? The timeline? The role of natural selection? The role of mutation? The apparent lack of purpose?

Because the teaching of evolution is limited and most scientific research is published in English rather than Arabic, understanding of evolution is shallow among broad sections of society and more shaped by religious scholars than scientists. Many people believe in God’s creation of Adam and Eve rather than in the emergence of modern humans through an evolutionary process. The notion of human descent from an ape-like ancestor is particularly offensive to them. While believing in certain adaptations of organisms to their environment, they oppose the general idea that one species could turn into another (except through God’s intervention). Unlike many Christians in America, most people in the Middle East are not Young Earth creationists, however. Although Christian creationists have influenced their Muslim counterparts in rejecting fossils as evidence of evolution, many people in the region are comfortable with the idea of Earth being billions of years old.

Is there a particular area of evolutionary science that has posed a challenge to the status quo in this part of the world? For example, has a specific discovery or general trend captured the imagination of researchers, such as the uncovering of a certain fossil, or the extinction of a species, or the growing science of evolutionary psychology?

Many ancestors of modern humans and other animals who left Africa on land would have first reached the Middle East before spreading to other parts of Eurasia. As a result, discoveries of primate fossils in the region are particularly interesting. In 2009, researchers from the University of Michigan and the Saudi Geological Survey discovered near Mecca a fossil of Saadanius hijazensis, an Oligocene intermediary between apes and Old World monkeys. The journal Nature published the finding, and BBC Arabic described this creature as a potential “missing link in the evolution of apes and humans.” Saudi newspapers and magazines covered this discovery too, but largely refrained from referring to evolution.

Desert climates are among the most at-risk regions of the world according to most climate change models. How are local universities and other institutions using their burgeoning resources to address this issue? At the same time, how does this square with the region’s role in the global oil industry?

Researchers from King Saud University and Taif University, together with colleagues from Ohio State University and the Frankfurt Zoological Garden, studied the effects of climate change on animals in Saudi Arabia. They warned that rising air temperatures would have a detrimental impact on diurnal desert animals, including the already threatened Arabian oryx. Conscious of global warming and declining oil reserves, the Gulf states have invested in energy-saving and renewable-energy projects, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and the Qatar Green Building Council. At present, the funding for these projects, and the Gulf economies in general, still largely depend on oil and gas production. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that solar and wind power will become viable alternatives to fossil fuels in the Arab region in future decades.

Do you foresee any specific developments or contributions that will be unique to the region? I’m thinking in particular of the efforts to diversify the sciences in order to transition away from the oil industry. But perhaps there are other, unexpected directions.

I have become especially interested in Arab space science, about which I am currently writing a book. While medieval Arabic contributions to astronomy are relatively well known, the modern history of this discipline in the region is far less so. Yet, spurred by development agendas and the collective memory of a golden age of Arabic and Islamic civilization, Arab states have invested significantly in space science and technology. In 1985, the first two Arab satellites, Arabsat-1A and -1B were launched into orbit. They and their successors enabled the expansion of satellite television in the region, which in turn contributed to a strengthening of Arab identity and inadvertently to the uprisings of 2011. Despite the challenges brought by these uprisings, governments in the region, as elsewhere, have continued to see space science and technology as vital to their future. The Qatar National Research Fund has supported a Qatar Exoplanet Survey through its flagship National Priorities Research Program. In 2014, the United Arab Emirates established a national space agency and announced an Emirates Mars Mission to be launched in 2020. An unmanned probe, named Al Amal “Hope”, is supposed to explore the dynamics of the Martian atmosphere. Long-term planning, financial resources and international collaboration will perhaps enable the Gulf countries to become hubs for space transport in the future, as they are already for air and sea transport.

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