Musharraf seeks boost for Muslim science

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[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan’s President, General Pervez Musharraf, has challenged Muslim countries to spend more on science and technology or risk remaining poor and susceptible to extremism.

“The main reason for our economic weakness is backwardness in science and technology,” Musharraf told an international gathering of representatives from such countries last week. “We need a massive investment, otherwise we will never rise.”

Musharraf was addressing more than 50 science ministers who were attending the annual three-day meeting of Comstech, the science cooperation commission attached to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).

He promised an extra $1 million for Comstech, taking its annual budget to nearly $4 million. And he added: “There is no dearth of money. The problem is one of will: the will to give, to sacrifice for the sake of the ummah [global Muslim community]”.

For those who accepted that science and technology were a priority, the resources existed, said Musharraf. “To become strong we need to strengthen our science and technology base. Without this our plans will remain dreams. Pakistan will give more than its share, but we will also keep raising this issue at the OIC level.”

His strongly worded message was partly a reaction to a decision by the OIC’s heads of state, at a meeting in Malaysia in November, to reject his proposals for a new pan-Muslim science fund.

Musharraf argues that if every Muslim country contributed 0.1 per cent of their gross national product to such a fund, it would be able to raise from that US$1 billion to spend on science and technology projects relevant to their social and economic needs.

The dissenters were led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who argued that many oil-producing countries could not currently consider contributing to a new fund given their strained economic circumstances.

Saleh Alathel, Saudi Arabia’s minister for science, told SciDev.Net that most Muslim countries have already made modest increases in their science spending over the past few years, and that there is no room for more.

Following the November defeat, however, Musharraf and his science adviser Atta ur Rahman tabled an alternative proposal. Under this, according to Rahman, each OIC country will now be asked to pledge a sum of money, which it will be free to spend on meeting its own science priorities.

The money could still be held centrally – such as at the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia. But Rahman adds that “this is money that each country will spend on own its needs. It is not going anywhere else.”

Rahman, who also heads the Comstech secretariat in Islamabad, says that the ministers will now be expected to return home and convince their heads of state that the project has become a reality.

For Musharraf, the initiative is a key plank in his wider efforts to encourage a more liberal form of Islam. But that is a high-risk strategy that has made him deeply unpopular among sections of the Pakistani community.

His critics claim that he is acting on the wishes of the United States as part of its war on terror. The latest attempt on Musharraf’s life happened a few minutes after he had left the Comstech meeting’s opening session. His motorcade was attacked by two suicide bombers, and 18 people were killed.