Physicist shunned over religion

2012-07-09 07:46

Islamabad - The pioneering work of Abdus Salam, Pakistan's only Nobel laureate, helped lead to the apparent discovery of the subatomic "God particle" last week. But the late physicist is no hero at home, where his name has been stricken from school textbooks.

Praise within Pakistan for Salam, who also guided the early stages of the country's nuclear programme, faded decades ago as Muslim fundamentalists gained power. He belonged to the Ahmadi sect, which has been persecuted by the government and targeted by Taliban militants who view its members as heretics.

Their plight - along with that of Pakistan's other religious minorities, such as Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Hindus - has deepened in recent years as hard-line interpretations of Islam have gained ground and militants have stepped up attacks against groups they oppose. Most Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims.

Salam, a child prodigy born in 1926 in what was to become Pakistan after the partition of British-controlled India, won more than a dozen international prizes and honours. In 1979, he was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, which theorises how fundamental forces govern the overall dynamics of the universe. He died in 1996.

Salam and Steven Weinberg, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, independently predicted the existence of a subatomic particle now called the Higgs boson, named after a British physicist who theorised that it endowed other particles with mass, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist who once worked with Salam.


It is also known as the "God particle" because its existence is vitally important toward understanding the early evolution of the universe.

Physicists in Switzerland stoked worldwide excitement on Wednesday when they announced they have all but proven the particle's existence. This was done using the world's largest atom smasher at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or Cern, near Geneva.

"This would be a great vindication of Salam's work and the Standard Model as a whole," said Khurshid Hasanain, chair of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Salam wielded significant influence in Pakistan as the chief scientific adviser to the president, helping to set up the country's space agency and institute for nuclear science and technology. Salam also assisted in the early stages of Pakistan's effort to build a nuclear bomb, which it eventually tested in 1998.

Salam's life, along with the fate of the three million other Ahmadis in Pakistan, drastically changed in 1974 when parliament amended the constitution to declare that members of the sect were not considered Muslims under Pakistani law.

Ahmadis believe their spiritual leader, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was a prophet of God - a position rejected by the government in response to a mass movement led by Pakistan's major Islamic parties. Islam considers Muhammad the last prophet and those who subsequently declared themselves prophets as heretics.

All Pakistani passport applicants must sign a section saying the Ahmadi faith's founder was an "impostor" and his followers are "non-Muslims".

Civilian honour

Ahmadis are prevented by law in Pakistan from "posing as Muslims", declaring their faith publicly, calling their places of worship mosques or performing the Muslim call to prayer. They can be punished with prison and even death.

Salam resigned from his government post in protest following the 1974 constitutional amendment and eventually moved to Europe to pursue his work. In Italy, he created a centre for theoretical physics to help physicists from the developing world.

Although Pakistan's then-president, General Zia ul-Haq, presented Salam with Pakistan's highest civilian honour after he won the Nobel Prize, the general response in the country was muted. The physicist was celebrated more enthusiastically by other nations, including Pakistan's archenemy, India.

Despite his achievements, Salam's name appears in few textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders or the media. By contrast, fellow Pakistani physicist AQ Khan, who played a key role in developing the country's nuclear bomb and later confessed to spreading nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, is considered a national hero. Khan is a Muslim.

Officials at Quaid-i-Azam University had to cancel plans for Salam to lecture about his Nobel-winning theory when Islamist student activists threatened to break the physicist's legs, said his colleague Hoodbhoy.

"The way he has been treated is such a tragedy," said Hoodbhoy. "He went from someone who was revered in Pakistan, a national celebrity, to someone who could not set foot in Pakistan. If he came, he would be insulted and could be hurt or even killed."

The president who honoured Salam would later go on to intensify persecution of Ahmadis, for whom life in Pakistan has grown even more precarious. Taliban militants attacked two mosques packed with Ahmadis in Lahore in 2010, killing at least 80 people.


"Many Ahmadis have received letters from fundamentalists since the 2010 attacks threatening to target them again, and the government isn't doing anything," said Qamar Suleiman, a spokesperson for the Ahmadi community.

For Salam, not even death saved him from being targeted.

Hoodbhoy said his body was returned to Pakistan in 1996 after he died in Oxford, England, and was buried under a gravestone that read "First Muslim Nobel Laureate". A local magistrate ordered that the word "Muslim" be erased.

  • john.turner.58760608 - 2012-07-09 08:12

    Isn't it amazing that these heretical and un-Muslim beliefs allow Pakistan to have atomic weapons?

      CaptainGaza - 2012-07-09 09:05

      Religion retards progress. Finish and klaar. I'm so sick of people hating and fighting for what? A deep belief in a delusion. What a joke.

  • jacovniek - 2012-07-09 08:27

    "Bring out the stakes! Burn them burn them!" What progress have we made? Are we really that clever? ...are we really out of the dark ages? I would argue that we are STILL stuck in them. We are so blind we cannot see the hand in front of our own eyes. We are nothing but judgemental savage beings. Dawkin's selfish gene is holding us back now, against all logic. To the Christians and Muslims having a problem with the Higgs Boson particle, please refer to relevant passage in our OWN scriptures pertaining to Job (Christian and Muslim), which boils down to: "Who are you human to judge the ways of God? Were you consciously there when all of this was set in motion? How can you possibly be so arrogant to claim to have an understanding of all the intricacies of creation?" Maybe... in 500 years...

      Cassandra Eileen Olivier - 2012-07-09 08:48

      I agree with you

  • antin.herinck - 2012-07-09 08:28

    Those Muslims there are even much more retarded than xtians. (Sorry to those guys, but it's the truth. No death-fatwa should be pronounced on me for writing the truth.)

      Cassandra Eileen Olivier - 2012-07-09 08:45

      No one likes to here the truth

      Cassandra Eileen Olivier - 2012-07-09 08:52

      Not all Muslims are bad its just the radical Muslims. I have met a few nice Muslims its just in the Muslim country's the dog has more rights then the woman

      antin.herinck - 2012-07-09 12:56

      Some acquaintances of my cousin's best friends are Muslims. And some of their best friends are fundamentalists. And curiously, none of the more moderates openly condemn their fundamentalist, mental brethren. For evil to prevail, all it takes ..and all that!

  • bob.macphearson - 2012-07-09 08:53

    hmmm... I wonder where that Saffiya lady who constantly writes articles for women24 on how peaceful and tolerant Islam is now?

  • Stephen - 2012-07-09 09:02

    Mankind is heading back into the dark ages, Science and reason, is showing us a world, that people don't want to see, they can't face up to the hard realities of the situation were in , they can't cope with the fact that they are going to die one day, and that's it. So brainwash yourself into a fairy story that tells you you’re going to live forever and ever in heaven, pathetic, cowards, and kill anyone who disagrees with you. These retards have to be genetically engineered away, that's more important than finding the Higgs boson.

  • stuart.steedman - 2012-07-09 09:07

    Ah religion, what *CAN'T* you mess up?

  • sudika.harkhu - 2012-07-09 11:33

    Sikhs are also being persecuted in Pakistan, in addition to the Hindus, Christians etc.

  • ben.louw.5 - 2012-07-09 14:01

    Same old story... No problem when science helps with creating something that kills and installs fear in other, but whatever you do, don't work on something that helps people understanding things and might make them think for themselves... You might loose your grip over them.

  • Ryan - 2012-07-09 14:02

    You either know GOD or you don't! Just stop wasting time debating the inevitable, you are going to get the answer one day. Rather focus your mortal efforts to change the corruption and hatred of your mortal oppressors And Never Concede!

  • badballie - 2012-07-09 15:56

    if I am sure of anything, its that mankind will not survive religion, the choice is survival of the species or religion.

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