Will a Nobel Prize winner ever come from Malaysia?

There is a sign at the Stockholm Nobel Museum which says “Nobel calling you”. It is a message to humankind that there are those with “Nobel potential” out there waiting to be discovered.

The Nobel Prize shows that ideas can change the world. Visiting the museum during my recent trip to Europe was very inspiring. The museum charts the struggles of prize winners in their fields and pursuit to make the world a better place.

The countries that have won the most Nobel Prizes are the US, UK and Germany. The only Asian country in the top 10 ranking is Japan, with 26 wins. Going by religion, only 0.8% of the winners between 1901 and 2000 were Muslims. Atheists, agnostics and freethinkers all fared better. As of 2015, only 12 Nobel Prize laureates were Muslims. Seven of them were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while only three were awarded prizes for the sciences. Perhaps this indicates that the Muslim world has not been at peace and has not devoted enough time and space for the sciences to develop. Islamic literature, too, is stifled if it strays from the “true religion” as interpreted by the men of state.

The current exhibition focuses on the life and struggle of 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King. As I looked at the exhibit, two things went through my mind: the Malay preoccupation with religion and our own struggle to overthrow a callous and corrupt regime led by Muslim leaders.

Religion is certainly important in our spiritual life, but the abuse of religion creates a disenchanted society which pushes people, especially the youth, towards atheism and free thinking. We can look to Christianity in Europe for a lesson. Tourism in Europe revolves around old town heritage sites – churches, castles and palaces. Many great churches are now museums, with some even converted into casinos, private homes or bed and breakfasts. Devoid of spirituality and worshippers, they display statues made of gold, beautiful stained glass, valuable paintings and paraphernalia of papal power.

One can only ponder how the churches became so rich, built gravity-defying architecture through great engineering skills, but lost their congregations over the years. These ancient churches now compete with each other to get the highest rating, not from God, but from TripAdvisor. The St Nicholas church I visited in Prague, for example, has a 4.5-star rating.

Is Islam in Malaysia heading in the same direction? Glancing through the issues which took place while I was away, Muslims appear preoccupied with the topics of underage marriage, LGBT, moral policing and punishments for personal transgressions. These are divisive issues, and any statements contrary to a conservative Muslim mind are labelled as liberal.

But the social ills of bored Muslim youth, manifested in Mat Rempits, terrorist cells and drug abuse, show that religious conservatism is not the answer to society’s growing problems. You can allocate big budgets through Jakim for Islamic and moral education, but the results indicate the opposite. Our solution is always to use the big hammer rather than to reason through dialogue and with empathy, thus driving believers further away from God.

The Sabah mufti’s recent suggestion to lower the minimum age of marriage to 14 for girls runs contrary to the universal belief that everyone has the right to education, and that advancement in education is the key to a developed society. Muslim women are still treated as objects, and how they dress or cover up is the main criteria for judging their religiosity.

Education is a key factor in the development of sciences. Martin Luther King knew the importance of education and fought for equal opportunities for the blacks in a segregated community. The sciences can contribute to the advancement of medicine, for example, but marrying girls off at a tender age does not contribute to anything but the satisfaction of men. And banning Islamic literature published by the likes of moderate group G25 puts the Muslim intellect in a straitjacket.

Mustafa Akyol reasoned that Muslims were quite successful a millennium ago because they formed a cosmopolitan civilisation that did not shy away from being open to different cultures. Muslim intellectuals were confident about their faith and hence did not see a problem in learning from non-Muslim sources of knowledge and synthesising these with Islam. However, today’s common Muslim mind, including the intellectual Muslim mind, is quite insular and focused on protecting the Islamic mental sphere from the influences of the outside world. The result is a defensive culture that refuses to engage with new ideas. That is why Martin Kramer, an American historian, argues, “Had there been Nobel Prizes in 1000, they would have gone almost exclusively to Muslims.”

Can the next Nobel prize winner come from Malaysia? If we can open our eyes to see beyond the divisive communal issues of the day and devote our energy to science and literature, perhaps there is a chance. But then we need to go beyond the propensity to dismiss anything we can’t understand or reason through, or criticise how women dress and carry out moral policing. Instead, we need to look more into the development of our intellect and mind.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.