Last fall, CJR’s Curtis Brainard discussed the state of science journalism in the Arab world with Nadia El-Awady and Zainab Ghosn, the president and a board member, respectively, of the nascent Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA).
What kind of science stories do you find in the Arab world?
Nadia El-Awady: There are science topics that we all have in common—global warming, for instance. We cover a lot of the science that’s happening in the West. Part of the reason for that is it’s so much easier to get information on that kind of science than it is to get information on what’s happening in our part of the world.
Have Arab governments made it difficult for scientists to speak with the media?
El-Awady: No. It’s more that we lack the mechanism for communicating such information. The public-information officers we have in our scientific institutions are not well equipped to do their job, and we as it should.
What are the Arab world’s scientific strengths?
El-Awady: Desalination is big in the gulf. The oil industry and energy sector, even alternative energy sources—there is a lot of research being done.
Zainab Ghosn: It can be hard to find scientists who are researching problems related to society. For example, there is a lot of research about the health effects of smoking in Western countries, but there is another problem in Arab countries, which is the nargila [a water pipe]. At the American University of Beirut, they started doing research about shisha [flavored tobacco], and how it affects health, and what are the differences between shisha and cigarettes. But this is an exception.
How does Islam relate to or affect science journalism in the Arab world?
El-Awady: I don’t see conflict between the two in the coverage. Islam, in general, promotes and encourages seeking knowledge and learning. When a moral issue arises, like stem-cell research or cloning, that is related to science, Islamic scholars will get together with the scientists and they will come up with what we call a jurisprudential verdict on whether or not there is a conflict between the science and the religion. Usually, if the scholars see a benefit to society, they’ll lean more toward the science. So with therapeutic cloning and stem-cell research, I don’t think there are many scholars who are against that. Part of what we’ve realized in Islam is that if science discovers something, scholars can go back to the text and reinterpret former understandings. In Islam we call this ijtihad.
Ghosn: For example, a Lebanese scholar recently decided that if you want to know when the holy month of Ramadan begins, astronomical calculations tell you. Because the Islamic months go by the lunar calendar, the Koran said that you have to see the new moon with your own eyes to tell when the month starts, but the measurements based on scientific instruments are more precise.