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View from Brussels: Can science bring cultures together?

Europe is experiencing growing cultural and social conflicts. Could better training in scientific method provide a solution, or are values too far apart?

I was interviewing a history teacher yesterday who was concerned about the growing conflicts in the Swedish school system between the large influx of Muslim recent migrants and native Swedes. He thought the solution would be to introduce more science teaching in schools.

I am not expert on Islam, but some people might say it’s not well known for its ability to accept challenging viewpoints. But his view was that young Swedish people were also intellectually flabby and would benefit from sharpening their thinking skills. And science was an intellectually rigorous place where different religions and different cultural backgrounds could meet, productively.

Maybe science is the universal language, but maybe he had a non-science teacher’s exaggerated belief that science can solve every problem. The Soviets had considerable scientific achievements while being ideologically opposed to the capitalist Americans. The Soviet Union at least had a culture based on the European one and Marx of course was a European thinker who’d mixed his economics from the British liberals with metaphysics borrowed from the German philosopher Hegel.  While Islam is more different than that.

Will science bring religions and values together or will it just serve to entrench different values with the military and political power that scientific learning and technological achievement bestow?

Or will science even cement divisions by showing that some religions are more inimical to progress than others, and create social and wealth differences that will also provide grounds for further conflict on top of the pre-existing religious differences?

Sweden and Europe are at a crossroads.  Engineers should stop and think about the changes taking place. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, recently spoke about how Germany must come to terms with the fact it will become a much more Muslim society, given Germany’s low birth rates and the high immigration. (If Sweden is currently the largest recipient of non-European migrants per capita in Europe, Germany has the highest absolute influx.) As the chief political enabler of the Refugees Welcome movement,  Merkel spoke positively about the opportunities ahead.

But there are issues raised by this. One is identity and the more prosaic one is whether Germany will maintain its scientific and technological lead if it becomes a more Islamic country. I know the Muslim world had a scientific golden age sometime around 1,000 years ago. It is also true that Muslim countries today produce notably few Nobel prize winners and have few top-ranking universities. I heard a Cairo publisher at a book fair a few years ago say that more books were translated into Spanish every year than into Arabic in centuries; in other words, he implied it was not a culture open to intellectual inquiry.  Doubtless there are rebuttals to this argument – that Hindu India for instance doesn’t produce many Nobel prize winners either, or that American universities suck up all the global talent and if you are looking at religious origins you might find Muslim Nobel prize winners based in the USA.  Well, maybe there is a case for and against.

Last week I visited and a Muslim-born woman from Iranian Kurdistan called Soheila Fors who runs a number of battered women’s shelters without any financial assistance from the Swedish government. She gets her contributions from members of the public. She has quite a high profile in Sweden.  Some Swedish journalists have called her “Islamophobic” even though she has saved the lives of maybe 1000 mostly Muslim women who have escaped abusive relationships. The women under Soheila Fors’s care been resettled into free Swedish life by changing their names and identities. Of course they have to be very careful in their use of modern communications technology.  Apparently there have been cases of women who imagined they had started a new life in other parts of the country who were tracked down by their children’s mobile phones and harassed by locally-based relatives or countrymen of the man she had left.

Soheila Fors talked to us at length – she is an experienced lecturer – and impressed upon me in as frank a way as I have ever heard the extent of social control of women that takes place in many Muslim communities in Sweden. These battered women are the worst cases, but social control is pretty prevalent even in many other families. Sweden, famously, is said to be the most liberal country for women in the world.  Young Muslim women face huge contrasts between the free lifestyles enjoyed by their ethnic Swedish peers at school and their own more constrained domestic lives. It is an area of huge conflict. Put it this way: Soheila Fors says that many Muslim communities are not exactly grateful for the temptations of freedom that Swedish society provides.

The women's shelter building was located in the outskirts of a town in the middle of Sweden – built in the 1960s, it  was a dull block of flats, surrounded by a very high fence topped with barbed wire. There were CCTV cameras everywhere and I saw the console from which everything was monitored. Such levels of security are highly unusual in Sweden.

Through her office windows where our interview was conducted, I saw some brightly dressed, covered women play with children but when I went out into the garden half an hour later, they had vanished. All the windows were shut and I could hear the birds singing. Children’s toys lay scattered about on the lawn. There was understandably a great fear of having their identities exposed, even though of course I would never have consciously done so. I looked out beyond the fencing and saw only a parked old car on the cracked asphalt. The jilted husbands were out there - somewhere.  

I wondered if technology could make these women’s lives better. Is there an app can help these women rebuild their lives? As surveillance technology becomes cheaper and more advanced, won’t these women’s futures become ever more precarious, so shouldn't something be done to counter that?  To return to the original question. Is education and science, and education in the scientific method, the answer to minimising different religious and cultural conflicts in the world?

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