An un-Islamic attack on science: Driving Israelis from a conference sets back public health in the Middle East

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This is not what Prophet Muhammad would have wanted.

During an international scientific conference on depression and anxiety held earlier this month at the University of Jordan in Amman, I witnessed three Israeli scientists -- two Jews and one Arab -- being pulled out of the meeting to escape to safety in the face of a rapidly growing demonstration.

The conference was sponsored by several universities and scientific organizations in an effort to increase interaction among American, Arab and Israeli scientists on a topic of paramount importance to public health in the Middle East.

At least one conference attendee had been offended that a presenter was an Israeli scientist. A demonstration was organized overnight to be held outside the auditorium the following day. The aim was to stop a second Israeli scientist from speaking.

It worked. The chanting crowd grew quickly as soon as the scientific sessions started. I stepped outside during the morning coffee break to see the demonstrations. It was a growing and angry crowd.

Right after the break, when the second Israeli scientist was to speak, university officials waved the Israelis out of the auditorium. Security guards waiting for them outside protected them with their bodies and ran with them to a back entrance where an escape car was waiting.

I was participating in this conference to speak about my research related to the vulnerability of the adolescent brain to mental illness. As a scientist who was raised a Muslim, I was deeply offended by the demonstrations.

Growing up in Iran, I repeatedly heard the following fable about the Prophet Muhammad from my teachers: Entering the Mosque one day, he saw two groups engaged in dialogue. When he inquired about the topic, he was told that one group was reading the Quran and the other was discussing a scientific matter. He said both were doing good deeds but he would go listen to the scientific discussion. With this act, the Prophet established that scientific thinking and dialogue must be valued in Islam.

It could be that this fable is only told or cherished in Iran, a place with a deep-seated tradition of respect for arts and sciences. To me, disrupting scientific dialogue that aims to improve human health is nothing short of sinful.

Jordan was chosen for this conference because it a country in the Middle East where both Arab and Israeli scientists could meet. Perhaps we were naive to think that medical science is immune to violence and that science could provide a medium for productive dialogue.

We scientists set specific aims and then work to get results advancing those aims. In that regard, if the aim of the demonstrators was to help the Palestinian or other Arab causes, the results were useless.

The fact that they pushed three Israelis out of the conference may have provided them a transient boost in confidence, but in actuality they managed to antagonize an influential group of scientists -- many of whom had a genuine interest in increasing dialogue with Jordanian scientists and clinicians with the goal of improving mental health treatment in the region.

I can read Arabic, and the demonstrators' signs saying "Yahoodi" (Jew) were especially upsetting to the Americans, several of whom were Jewish. The demonstrators also embarrassed their countrymen: We were guests of their country, and in a culture that prides itself on welcoming guests, it was painful to see the embarrassment felt by our faculty hosts and Jordanian students.

Inside the auditorium, we moved on. We were not about to let the demonstrators disrupt the conference. At the conclusion, students approached us to express both gratitude and apologies for what had happened.

Many of us had wonderful interactions with the students, who were eager to talk to us about careers in scientific research. Seeing their sorrowful response to the events of that day was heart wrenching. It was these students, not the Israelis, who were truly shut out that day.

The extremists on all sides are loud with their intolerant and violent rhetoric. What was silenced that day was the voice of young, progressive men and women whose goal is the betterment of human health regardless of whether they learned the story of Abraham and Joseph from reading the Torah, the Bible or the Quran.

After the meeting, some of us traveled in Jordan and toured the magnificent Petra and Wadi Rum. We met Jordanians, including Bedouins, who upon hearing that we study the brain confided in us that they or a family member was suffering from depression, epilepsy, anxiety or chronic pain. They would ask our opinion about the medications they were taking to alleviate the symptoms of these illnesses.

All of the medications, helping these good Muslims, were developed by scientists who did not care about the religion or the race of the people who would benefit from their discoveries. That is what Prophet Muhammad would have wanted.


Bita Moghaddam is a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh ( bita@pitt.edu ). Her Moghaddam Laboratory studies neurobiological disorders ( www.moghaddamlab.org ).


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