It is encouraging to note that Muslims are re-igniting their spirit of scholarship and joining the ranks of scholarly and professional groups in the United States and other parts of the world. In the recent years, many Muslims have won recognition as entrepreneurs, scientists, social workers and businesspersons. Ahmed H. Zewail, an American Muslim professor at Caltech, won this year's Noble Prize in Chemistry. Yet, as society becomes increasingly complex and the fields of knowledge grow similarly complex and specialized, Muslims must take care to have a fair representation in emerging scholarly fields.
Scholarship indeed is the software of society. In a dynamic interplay with other forces of society, scholarship generates and develops knowledge that shapes public discourse, politics, and the course of civilizations throughout the world. Historically, the most sophisticated civilizations or developed communities have upheld the most vibrant scholarly activity. During the so-called Middle Ages or Dark Ages in the West, for example, Muslims upheld the mantle of scholarship matching their glory as the heralds of a new civilization on earth and as the superpower of the then known world. Over the past few centuries, the decline of Muslim civilization has coincided with the fall or collapse of Muslim scholarship.
Even as Muslims reengage in scholarly activity at the dawn of the 21st century, their participation in various fields of knowledge is awfully imbalanced. In a typical gathering of 100 American Muslim scholars/professionals, you are likely to find 90 Engineers, computer scientists and medical doctors. You will rarely find communication scholars, filmmakers, historians, journalists, litterateurs, philosophers, political scientists, popular writers, or sociologists.
I just returned from the annual convention of the National Communication Association (NCA) held in Chicago, where the Indian, Japanese, and Chinese American scholars were conspicuous by their presence. American Muslim scholars were conspicuous by their absence as well. Of the estimated 4000 communication scholars who attended the convention, probably less than four were Muslims. Scholars in the conference presented their research and held specialized panel discussions on numerous topics. Intriguingly, a panel of the scholars discussed how the Russian media and political discourse is now targeting the Muslims of the Caucasus as "international terrorists" to prepare the ground for eliminating them the way the German media and political discourse demonized the "international Jews" in the 1930s and early 1940s. I wished there were Muslim communication scholars leading many such discussions in scholarly forums and in the media to articulate the pitiable plight of the Muslim peoples in the Caucasus and other parts of the world.
Communication Studies is essentially an interdiscipline that integrates both social and human science perspectives. According to Communication Professor Stanley Deetz, people have studied and discussed communication processes through all of recorded history. This study has taken on a specialized shape over the past half a century or so.
If you read the evolution of society carefully, you will perhaps find a positive correlation between humanistic/communication scholarship/professionalism and national political clout. For example, the state of Israel that dominates Middle East and U.S. politics has perhaps the highest ratio of communication scholars and media professionals in the world. Compared to the number of Israeli or pro-Israel American communication scholars, that of Muslim or Arab communication scholars is insignificant.
One can understand that most Muslims have chosen the scientific fields out of a concern for getting high-paying jobs or as a response to the market demands. Out of similar concerns, many American Muslim parents I know have "predetermined" that their sons and daughters will become medical doctors, engineers, or computer scientists. In the same fashion, the universities mushrooming now in the Muslim countries have downplayed the social science and humanities fields like communication studies.
In contrast, you will find strong humanities components even in the exclusively technological universities in the United States. Almost all world-class universities now not only offer courses in communication but also have departments, schools, or colleges of Communication Studies. Ohio University, for example, has a College of Communication with five schools -- namely, School of Telecommunications, School of Interpersonal Communication, School Journalism, School of Visual Communication and School of Communication Systems Management --that complement each other as they offer dozens of degree programs. Universities in Singapore and Hong Kong have developed similar schools of communication.
If Muslims continue to choose careers and develop institutions of higher study excluding or downplaying humanistic fields, their approach will continue to create an imbalance in scholarly role and resources for the Muslim community. For, if Muslims are to lead the world again, they must develop skills and specialization in various fields of scholarship and human activity. Flocking to a few fields in response to market demands may not translate into a revival of leadership. Muslims must review and redirect their trajectory of scholarship.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com