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Fly Me to the Muezzin


Austin Dacey

August 2, 2010

NASA sent a probe to "the Muslim world," but are its lenses fogged up?

Last month, NASA's new administrator, Charles Bolden, flew into an asteroid field of criticism when he told Al Jazeera during a visit to Egypt that the foremost charge given him by President Obama was to uplift Muslims.

When I became the NASA administrator—before I became the NASA administrator—he charged me with three things: One was that he wanted me to re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, that he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.

The Washington Examiner published a reaction by former NASA chief Michael Griffin, who attacked Bolden's statement as "a perversion of NASAs purpose." FOX News pundit Charles Krauthammer hammered, "This is a new height in fatuousness. NASA was established to get America into space and to keep us there. This idea of to feel good about their past scientific achievements'—it's the worst kind of group therapy psycho-babble, imperial condescension, and adolescent diplomacy."

Bolden Going Where No Man Has Gone Before

The mild-mannered astronaut and former Marine Corps major general had already drawn fire for his announcement that the administration would mothball NASA's Constellation program and instead rely on private industry to provide transportation to the international space station. The administration's proposed focus on a future manned flight to Mars was blasted at a May 12 Senate committee meeting by Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan—the last man to walk on the moon—as "a blueprint for a mission to nowhere." Neil Armstrong testified, "I believe the president was poorly advised."

To the Al Jazeera host's follow-up question, Bolden denied that his was a diplomatic mission. Instead, he said that the president's directive had a pragmatic purpose: "there is much to be gained by drawing in the contributions that are possible from the Muslim nations. . . . No single nation is going to get to a place like Mars alone."

Griffin is not persuaded that the U.S. needs help from Muslim-majority states to get to Mars: "There is no technology they have that we need." In February, according to the Orlando Sentinel, Bolden identified Indonesia as a potential partner. Indonesia did not launch its first domestically manufactured rocket until 2008.

Amid the immediate fallout from the interview, the White House stood by Bolden, releasing a statement pushing the pragmatic argument: "The President has always said that he wants NASA to engage with the world's best scientists and engineers as we work together to push the boundaries of exploration. Meeting that mandate requires NASA to partner with countries around the world like Russia and Japan, as well as collaboration with Israel and with many Muslim-majority countries. The space race began as a global competition, but, today, it is a global collaboration."

But several weeks later, the Obama Administration distanced itself from Bolden's original claims about what the president had tasked him with doing. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that Bolden misspoke, saying "that is not his task, and that was not asked of him."

Near-Earth Objections

Ignore for the moment the question of NASA's proper mandate. (Personally, I'm coming around to the view that most of the budget should go to paying Bruce Willis to keep near-Earth objects from destroying the world.) Instead, inspect the assumptions driving the rhetoric. When Bolden speaks of "historic contributions," he is no doubt referring to medieval history, the celebrated era between the eighth and fourteenth centuries during which Arabic-Islamic thinkers were the leaders in natural philosophy, mathematics, and medicine.

Is it true that "Muslim nations" do not "feel good" about these contributions? In my experience, in discourse in the international community and scholarly literatures, one quite often encounters the opposite attitude: a dogmatic sense of self-satisfaction, as if to say, we did it first. Among religious conservatives and representatives of the authoritarian Islamic states, such satisfaction can provide cover for inaction and stagnation. For them, the Golden Age does not so much prove that Muslims can do science as it proves that they have done it already.

Taken as folk psychology, the rhetoric also assumes that feeling better about the past will make Muslims feel better about the future. However, as I've pointed out in this space before, the more gilding one applies to the Golden Age of Arabic-Islamic science, the worse its present condition will appear. It either suggests that the medieval Arabs really dropped the armillary or it feeds into the popular but misleading narrative that Islamic science would have triumphed had it not been for imperialistic incursions from without. I would expect the first to bring shame and the second resentment. An unflinching look at the history, on the other hand, could bring useful insights into some of the long-entrenched institutional and cultural forces that continue to hold back science in Islamic states.

There is an urban legend circulated in Muslim communities around the world that while on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong heard a strange noise. Subsequently, back on Earth, upon hearing the Islamic call to prayer, Armstrong recognized it as the sound he had heard on the moon and converted immediately.1

The American travel writer Paul Theroux heard a variation of this tale in a conversation on a passenger train crossing Turkmenistan, where he found himself seated in a car with a soldier, a student, and an old man in traditional Turkmen dress. The old man welcomed the foreigner. The student, translating, said the old man had a question for Theroux.

"He says that some years ago, an astronaut went to the moon," the student said. "He was from America. When he got to the moon, he heard a strange noise. It was an azan"—the call to prayer usually chanted by a muezzin from a mosque. "The astronaut recorded it. When he came back to Earth, the scientists in America analyzed it, and they came to think that it was the voice of the Prophet Muhammad."

"On the moon?"

"Yes. On the moon."

The old man was still speaking, his chin beard swinging.

"Furthermore, he says that because of this, the astronaut became a Muslim and began praying five times a day."

The old man was facing me, as though defying me to mock the story.

"I haven't heard this story," I said.

"He says he believes it."

"What does he think about it?"

When this question was translated, the student said, "For him, it's good news."2

My attentive readers will no doubt note that the moon has no atmosphere, so no sound could exist there. That must explain how Armstrong could have missed the call of the muezzin on the moon.

If NASA wants a meaningful way to engage with Muslim communities, it should make its materials available in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, and Farsi. Stories about how East preceded West are not going to help anyone get ahead.

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.