When most people hear the term “Syrian immigrant”, they don’t immediately envision robotics researchers. Similarly, when people hear “scientist”, they usually don’t think of fervently religious Muslims. Then again, most people haven’t met Moe.
I first encountered Mowafak Allaham about three years ago in a cognitive psychology lab at George Mason University, located in northern Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. I was working towards my PhD in neuroscience, and Moe was a computer scientist enrolled in the Master’s program who had just journeyed here from the Middle East. While trying to develop software that could understand natural language, he came to believe that no computer program was capable of true understanding because that required consciousness, a property that perhaps goes beyond mere algorithms. This propelled him to seek out answers about how the mind worked, and why humans are intelligent in a way that computers are not. After switching to the Master’s program in applied cognition, his curiosities about minds and machines propelled him to take a position in a social robotics lab.
Everything was going great until Moe’s graduation started to approach. He wanted to continue his research in a PhD program, but he soon learned from faculty that because most scholarships and fellowships were government funded, they were only available to U.S. citizens. This makes life difficult for many foreign students hoping to earn a superior education by coming to America. Struggling to make ends meet, Moe feared that he’d have to return to Syria, a nation in the midst of a civil war that has waged since 2011 when the people’s uprising began. Although his family was still in Damascus, the Syrian capital, he knew that if he returned to the land of no opportunity, he would have to give up his dream of a career in science.
Fortunately, in 2015 Mowafak was able to land a research position in the Social Cognitive Science Research Center at Brown University, where he currently investigates how robots can be designed to better enhance human-robot cooperation.
I spoke with Moe about what it’s like for those wishing to pursue science in Syria, how the Quran aids him on his journey of scientific discovery, and the hardships faced by Muslims in America following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.
What is it like for scientists and students looking to pursue science in Syria?
Being a scientist in Syria is extremely rough. You have hundreds of reasons to let go of your dreams and only one to keep you going. There are essentially no advanced degrees offered in science fields and little to no funding for lab equipment or other technologies that aid research.
For example, when I first came to a U.S. university and began working in a robotics lab, it was quite a foreign concept to me that a school could have its own money to spend on such cool stuff.
This is often taken for granted by students in America, who expect to have things like their own computers in a programming class. In Syria, students share computers if they are lucky enough to have them at all, which makes it very hard to become proficient or excel at anything.
As history has taught us, there is no hope for anyone in the shade of an oppressive regime. Like many Middle Eastern countries, Syria is a very unhealthy environment for acquiring knowledge due to corruption, and in general there are no opportunities for those looking to pursue science.
Due to this lack of opportunity, my father and mother made many sacrifices to secure a good education for my siblings and I in the neighboring country of Lebanon. Over there, the situation is completely different, as Lebanon is more exposed to western countries and has a lot of great scientists and scholars that have graduated from top U.S institutions such as Princeton, UC Berkeley, and M.I.T.
What motivated you to leave the Middle East to come to the U.S.?
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Lebanese American University in 2013, my graduate study there was in jeopardy due to unfortunate political instability in the region. Returning to Syria was not an option because of the Syrian uprising. Government regulations were forcing youth to be on the front line of the conflict, making any goals for a better life—especially one involving science—near impossible.
Fortunately, my father, a civil engineering graduate from Northeastern University in Boston, suggested that I invest my future in a more prosperous, rigorous, and stable scientific environment. This is what led me to apply to a master’s program at George Mason University in Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. He would often describe how Americans appreciate science and scientists. How they are friendly, respectful, and welcoming of foreigners. Although some of our politicians are trying to distort this image, foreign scientists will forever see the U.S as the land of opportunity.
You are a devout Muslim. How do you reconcile your knowledge of science with the stories of the Quran?
You can believe in a deity and be a successful scientist at the same time. I believe that religion and science are two completely separate entities. In general, people assume that religion is against science because religion rejects any scientific explanation that could replace god. What is unique about Islam, as a monotheistic religion, is that it doesn’t reject scientific explanations. Instead, it looks at them in an orthogonal way. In other words, Muslims do believe that Allah (a gender neutral word in Arabic meaning God) created the universe, but we also believe that God has created the means for us to critically inspect our surroundings and search for conclusions about our own existence. This is the aim of science. If you examine the verses of the Quran you will see this, and you will also find that the language is addressed not just to Muslims, but humanity in general. Here are a few examples:
 It is He who has spread out the earth and set in it firm mountains and streams, and of every fruit He has made in it two kinds. He draws the night’s cover over the day. There are indeed signs in that for a people who reflect.
 In the earth are neighboring terrains [of diverse kinds] and vineyards, farms, and date palms growing from the same root and from diverse roots, [all] irrigated by the same water, and We give some of them an advantage over others in flavor. There are indeed signs in that for a people who apply reason.
 Indeed in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, and the ships that sail at sea with profit to men, and the water that Allah sends down from the sky—with which He revives the earth after its death, and scatters therein every kind of animal—and the changing of the winds, and the clouds disposed between the sky and the earth, are surely signs for a people who apply reason.
As a Muslim, I do believe that God is what caused this universe to come into existence regardless of the means. In other words, if the big bang is the physical factor that caused this universe to come into existence, I believe in a metaphysical entity that brought different factors all together to cause the big bang.
That being said, I don’t find science and Islam to be in opposition to one another. Rather, Islam provides me with a solid foundation of understanding about my own existence on which I can build my scientific reasoning and come up with more focused research questions.
Can you give some examples of how the Quran has revealed truths about the natural world that were later confirmed by modern science?
It appears that the Quran described the expanding universe long before it was confirmed in 1929 by observational data from the Hubble telescope.
[Quran 51.47] And the heaven, We built it with craftsmanship and We are still expanding.
A study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals intelligent and complex cooperative behavior amongst ants that was described in the Quran nearly 1400 years ago. Researchers from Princeton found that the “living” bridges ants instinctively form with their bodies are much more sophisticated than previously thought.
The following verse from Chapter 27 of the Quran (Al-Naml, The Ants) explains that ants have the capacity to communicate and cooperate toward achieving a goal:
When they came to the Valley of Ants, an ant said, ‘O ants! Enter your dwellings, lest Solomon and his hosts should trample on you while they are unaware.’ - (Al-Naml --The Ants -- Chapter 27, verse 18)
Although the Quran is not a book of science, it is a book that invites everyone to contemplate their surroundings and to search for signs that lead them to their creator.
What do you say to people who believe that the Quran has scriptures that promote violence and intolerance?
Arabic is a very rich and complex language. You can’t pick a verse from the Quran and isolate it from its context. Muslim scholars and theologians repeatedly mention that to understand a verse in the Quran, one has to learn first when and why it was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Without this knowledge, one might be trapped in false assumptions about the true meanings behind many of the verses.
What is it like for Muslims in America since the string of ISIS attacks that have occurred over the last year? Do some people react strange when you tell them you are from Syria? Do you feel discriminated against?
In general, the U.S. is a very kind and understanding nation. Although I had couple of discrimination incidents, it would be unfair to generalize the hate acts of a small group and upscale it to the national level. That would be very much like attributing terrorism to Islam. You can’t paint a whole group by one color. There are always good and bad people in any group.
Do you feel that Muslims have an especially hard time fitting in or finding there place in the U.S. in the wake of recent attacks?
Unfortunately, yes. Muslims are expected to constantly exclaim how they don’t support the terrorist attacks taking place locally and overseas, and if they do not then they are automatically labeled ISIS sympathizers by many. Also, much of the media is playing a major role in enlarging the gap between Muslims and their fellow Americans, instead of rectifying it. It’s important to keep in mind that Islam is a religion and not a nationality. There are many Muslim Americans who are devoted to helping people in their communities, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. It is part of our religious duty to be a force of good and an active member of our society, regardless of where we are. Therefore, I think it is important for Americans who have a misconception of Islam to learn more about it. Muslims, like many Americans, are patriotic and willing to be part of humanitarian initiatives to help others locally and abroad. Fortunately, this was made quite clear in President Obama’s speech following the San Bernardino shootings.
If you could say something to the American public at large, what would it be?
Since my first couple of days in the U.S, I was very lucky to meet and interact with bright and respectful scientists from different nationalities and backgrounds, which made my graduate study at George Mason University a rich experience.
Being a Muslim in the U.S has been a bit challenging since Paris attacks and San Bernardino Shootings. It is important to recognize that these acts don’t represent Islam or Muslims.
Muslims are one of the elements that form the fabric of American society and are inseparable from it. They could be your cab driver in NYC, a cook who is preparing your meal at a Mediterranean restaurant, your university professor, or the person sitting next to you at a Star Wars movie! It’s my role as a Muslim immigrant to use the skills I’ve acquired here to give back to the society who welcomed me in a time of hardship, and provided me with the help needed to pursue my research and academic goals.