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Pakistan’s lone Nobel laureate no hero at home

Abdus Salam was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the so-called Standard Model of particle physics

  • AP
  • Published: 00:00 July 10, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: AP
  • In the 1960s and early 1970s, Abdus Salam wielded significant influence in Pakistan as the chief scientific adviser to the president

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 Abdus 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 has deepened in recent years as hardline interpretations of Islam have gained ground and militants have stepped up attacks against groups they oppose.

Abdus 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 honors. 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.

Abdus 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 Abdus Salam. It is also known as the “God particle” because its existence is vitally important towards 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, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Abdus 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. Abdus Salam also assisted in the early stages of Pakistan’s effort to build a nuclear bomb, which it eventually tested in 1998.

Abdus Salam’s life, along with the fate of the 3 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 Gulam 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.

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

Abdus 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, Gen Zia ul-Haq, presented Abdus 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 arch-enemy, India.

Despite his achievements, Abdus Salam’s name appears in few textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders or the media. By contrast, fellow Pakistani physicist A.Q. 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 Abdus 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 Sulaiman, a spokesman for the Ahmadi community.

For Abdus 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.


Comments (18)

  1. Added 16:29 July 10, 2012

    A great scientist who served his whole life for the humanity and always wanted to keep up the flag of Pakistan but in return the Governement of Pakistan completely ignored him just because of his religious beliefs. I proud on Dr Abdul Salam he won the noble prize and paticipated in the award ceremoney with Pakistani dress and by starting the speech with the recitation of the holy quran. its a shamefull act of some pakistani people who discriminate Dr sahib just because of religious belief.

    abdulhai, manchester, United Kingdom

  2. Added 16:00 July 10, 2012

    All Pakistanis are proud of him. Article is showing a wrong image !!

    Amjad Khan, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  3. Added 15:30 July 10, 2012

    I dont agree to the article completely. These are just opinions of writer of the article.

    Usman, London, United Kingdom

  4. Added 13:59 July 10, 2012

    “One and the only Pakistani Nobel Laureate.” He was a Saraiki born in Jhang and shall remain a hero of Saraiki Waseb. We are proud of him.

    Sanwal Saraiki, Multan, Pakistan

  5. Added 13:54 July 10, 2012

    I read about him in many books. its not true, his name is erased. He is our HERO. Abus Salam Zindabad.....

    Salim, RAK, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 13:53 July 10, 2012

    We still consider him a Pakistani hero I also remember reading about Sir Abdul Salam in matric ssc-II physics text book of hyderabad board of education. In Pakistan, the number of litrate and moderate muslims is far more than ill minded extremists. Regards Imdad Ali Shah Chartered Accountant

    Imdad Ali Shah, Dubai, Larkana, United Arab Emirates

  7. Added 12:24 July 10, 2012

    He is a Pakistani Hero, all Pakistanis are proud of him.

    saima, Lahore, United Arab Emirates

  8. Added 12:23 July 10, 2012

    Well, the article isn't completely biased. He may be hailed by the Educated Class per se but not the general population. Regardless of his religious beliefs, the mere fact that he is a Pakistani should be celebrated. But such is the state of this blighted nation that heroes turn villains over night because of some ill conceived notion of religiosity.

    Asif, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  9. Added 12:17 July 10, 2012

    Im suprised by the comments. There is a youtube video of a pakistani channel (talk show) which CLEARLY ACCEPTS that this mans accomplishments were not recognised. Dr. Abdus Salam being 'thrown out' of his country is well documented. How can readers outright deny this? suprised!

    Farhan, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  10. Added 11:46 July 10, 2012

    Noble Prize winner and respected Mr. Abdus Salam's name is there in the text books for his great achievement mentioned as 'Theory Of Unification' which earned him Noble Prize. He's much respected around the students and techers all around the country and even among the people who knew about his achievement. Due to some exrtemist, no one cannot say that he wasn't given the due respect. This article is much biased and states more of his religious behviour than his achievement in the field of science. He's always remembered as PAKISTANI HERO rather than a non-muslim by law.

    Syed Ali Imran, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

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