Pervez Hoodbhoy is one of Pakistan’s leading scientists and intellectuals. But if you tell him that, he might not take it as a compliment. “You make an assertion that I am a leading scientist,” he says, “in a country where there are next to no scientists, and it’s not hard to be the leading one or close to that. But if I was to look at myself in the world picture, this would be false. Here in Pakistan the number of genuine scientists is so few.”
Hoodbhoy is known for his outspoken views on the many problems Pakistan faces, notably in the fields of science and education.
I meet the famous nuclear scientist, academic and writer in his office at Lahore’s Forman Christian College. So how did he become interested in science? “As a kid I used to make all sorts of electronic gadgets, and just loved taking apart radios and making transmitters and other things,” he says. “But when I went to the US, I found that the world is a much bigger place, and that physics and mathematics are the keys that open for us the mysteries of the universe. I became aware of that because of the fantastic teachers I had. They were the people who had actually discovered important new principles and were at the very forefront of knowledge.”
Born and brought up in the port city of Karachi, Hoodbhoy went to the United States in 1969 as a 19-year-old to study electrical engineering at MIT. His initial impressions of the country were far from great. “I hated the US because of what it was doing in Vietnam. I saw it as an imperialist country that was riding roughshod over the rest of the world. The bombing of Vietnam, which I became aware of because of student protests, left me immensely distressed.”
Hoodbhoy’s involvement in the protests landed him in some trouble. “At one point I nearly got arrested. The vice-president of MIT threatened to have me deported. But I wasn’t deterred and I managed to stay on.”
Deeply upset with the US, he dropped out from MIT and returned to Pakistan but then was persuaded to go back to his studies. After six months he returned to MIT to finish his education. The chance of learning so much delighted him: “I found everything so exciting that I couldn’t decide what to take up: physics, mathematics or electrical engineering. So I did all three.”
Hoodbhoy completed his studies and returned to Pakistan in 1973 thinking he would never go back to the US. He started teaching as a junior lecturer at Islamabad University, later renamed Quaid-i-Azam University.
What was campus life in Pakistan like after returning from the US? “It was enormously disappointing because the attitudes of students and teachers were so different from what I had seen at MIT. There was only the desire for grades, or of reproducing what was in the textbooks. Still I must say I was in the very best department of the very best university in the country. And I was challenged by the fact that I had seniors who knew a lot more than I did.” The department had been founded by Professor Riazuddin, a student of Dr Abdus Salam, a renowned physicist.
“I felt myself to be quite unknowledgeable when I came back. I had just a masters in solid state physics and most of my colleagues had PhDs. So I resolved that I should immediately go back to America and get a PhD. By that time the Vietnam War was over, and I did not feel as strongly against the US as I had earlier. This made it easier for me to adjust in the US.”
Hoodbhoy speaks highly of the standard of education in the US, but his views on the state of education in Pakistan are a different story. One of his concerns has been the spread of pseudoscience. I ask him about an article he wrote last year in which he talked about a workshop on jinns (spirits) and black magic organised at one of the country’s largest universities. Jinns are mentioned in the Quran as beings made from “smokeless fire” and who many believe are not visible to the human eye.
The bogus “scientific” theories about jinns in Pakistan are a good example of the way religion is distorted and manipulated. “There was a PCSIR [Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] scientist who did a lot on the chemical composition of jinns,” Hoodbhoy says. “This man concluded that jinns had to be made of methane. All sorts of crazy, nonsensical ideas were abundant in those days, and they are still abundant now. It is just that people like me made fun of it and exposed these idiots, to the point that they would not open their mouths publicly.”
The “science” of jinns in Pakistan has a rich history. “Countless papers were being written in the late 1970s and then, more in the 1980s. At a number of Islamic science conferences, Islamic scientists calculated the degree of munafakat [hypocrisy] in a society, the amount of sawab [reward] which would be earned as a function of the number of people in the jamaat [assembly], worked on ways of extracting energy from jinns and theorised whether jinns could produce offspring with women.”
How can anyone measure the chemical composition of jinns? “Ah, but you see, that is exactly the point. Let me repeat an argument that I heard: ‘Have you ever seen a jinn that emits black smoke? You haven’t, right? Which means that a jinn has to be made of a gas which, when it burns, doesn’t emit smoke. Methane is exactly that. And so jinns are made of methane.’ And then there were various theories that the white race is actually jinns. You heard every possible kind of nonsense. Even today all you have to do is browse the internet on this subject and you will find tonnes of garbage.”
Were there many people who were doing this kind of research? “Entire conferences were dedicated to this subject in Zia-ul-Haq’s time. There were, and probably still are, large numbers of such crazies in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Now you will ask how they managed to do anything. The answer is that when it comes to matters of technology — welding, soldering, making Uranium Hexafluoride gas, explosives, etc — those are mere technological issues. If you are naturally smart, and if you also have access to information and to products made overseas, then it is not hard to replicate such things. However, they are capable of doing little beyond that.”
In every society there are cranks and conspiracy theorists. Countries such as the UK and US have their share of loonies. Is Hoodbhoy saying such people are more mainstream in Pakistan? “I would say that getting energy from jinns is extreme. But such people are not rare in our scientific establishment. They are less then mainstream but more than just occasional, so they are somewhere in between mainstream and marginal. But what is more worrying is that our scientists don’t seem to understand or even know what the scientific method is. Science is not about opinions. Instead it must be supported by facts, logical reasoning and observation. Absence of scientific thinking is manifest in the teaching of science in our colleges, universities and schools. This leads to Pakistan being a very backward country so far as education and science go.”
Another fraud Hoodbhoy exposed a few years ago was a man who claimed to have invented a car that ran on water. This supposed “invention” attracted the attention of some of Pakistan’s top scientists, television anchors and politicians. Did Hoodbhoy have trouble making people believe it was a hoax? “I had trouble at that time, and I am not sure I am out of trouble even now. If one talks even to college students today, they are not convinced that a car cannot run on pure water because all the big people — Dr A.Q. Khan, Dr Samar Mubarakmand and the chairman of the PCSIR — said it can. This is a clear indication that we accept authority over facts and evidence.”
The water car was proved to be a fraud, but only after many weeks of high publicity. “Why were people so enamoured by the water car? It is because we are looking for miracles. In the political arena we are constantly looking for a Salah Al Deen Ayubi ... And we are also looking for some magic such as the water car, which will instantly solve Pakistan’s energy problems. This is what happens when you have a poorly educated — and worse — a miseducated country.”
Hoodbhoy at the time appeared on television to refute the Pakistani “invention”. Did he manage to change anyone’s views? “It became a little difficult for most people to hang on to this belief because the guy who claimed to have invented the water car, Agha Waqar Pathan, turned out to be a bank robber. Someone dug out the fact that he had an FIR filed against him some two years earlier. And so he was a huckster ... But the issue is that how is it that you have the majority of this country’s’ television anchors, the politicians, the people, falling for such obvious nonsense? It says that there is something very sick with Pakistan.”
Hoodbhoy’s stint in the US left a strong impression on him. “I went to MIT and was overwhelmed by the intellectual excitement over there,” he says. “I was also overwhelmed physically by the fact that I had to work. I had one quarter scholarship, one quarter loan, and the other half I had to make up by working. So I worked on every job that I could find, which included working in cafeterias, restaurants, the library as a book checker, and as a janitor. I found this most exhilarating over there, the fact that dignity of labour is respected. That’s very different from Pakistan where people expect servants to shine their shoes and bring them a glass of water. This does not happen in the US which, for all its faults, is a democratic society.”
It was also the time of the 1971 war which led to the independence of Bangladesh. “Pakistanis were deeply splintered at that time. The majority were, as in Pakistan, agreeing with the idea of military action, although it was clear that military action was leading to severe brutalities and massacre of Bengalis. It was at that time that I heard Eqbal Ahmad speak on this issue. And that was another turning point in my life. I said to myself that it is not just the United States, it is also Pakistan that is part of the bigger problem. And my duty is to return to Pakistan as soon as I can, and work for a socialist revolution.”
Looking at Pakistan today Hoodbhoy’s goal to bring a “socialist revolution” has clearly has been achieved. These days Hoodbhoy appears more worried by what he describes as the “enormous rise” in religiosity in Pakistan. He has seen a change in the outward appearance of the general public, including his students. “It is apparent,” he says. “As I look outside my window I see burqa after burqa.” I follow Hoodbhoy’s gaze and notice someone, presumably a student in a burqa, walking past. “It wasn’t this way when I joined Quaid-i-Azam University — Islamabad University at that time,” says Hoodbhoy. “In 1973 there was not a single female in burqa. Now it is hard to find a woman not wearing burqa or hijab. And of course, that has an enormous impact upon the classroom. You cannot have inquiry in a classroom where there are only burqas and beards.”
Has he had conversations with students on why they are changing their dress? “Only with students who would be comfortable with this. The answer that I’ve got is, ‘Sir, this is what Islam says.’ Upon prodding, I say, weren’t we Muslims earlier? Your mothers didn’t wear burqas when they were in this university. A girl, who is the daughter of one of my earlier students, said everyone does this today. I think it is peer pressure that most students cannot resist.”
I ask Hoodbhoy which is the bigger problem in Pakistan — low literacy rate or problems with the education syllabus. “I have no doubt that it is miseducation rather than lack of education. Let’s When Pakistan came into existence in 1947 there was only 8 per cent literacy, but we were a peaceful people. We didn’t have these crazies going around with guns shooting those whose beliefs they deemed haram or kufur. We didn’t have this violent sectarianism that we have today. We now have 60 per cent literacy but have become a violent people. This literacy has been a curse for this country because all that the people read is either religious propaganda or pornographic stuff.”
Another topic Hoodbhoy worries about is the spread of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent. “It doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that if nuclear weapons are used it will be the end of life as we know it — both in India and in Pakistan. And that this possibility is not a distant one because of the visceral relationship between the two countries. I hold India to blame for starting the arms race on the subcontinent, but I think we did not have to follow it. I am very worried about how India continues to push towards more weapons, more sophisticated missiles, submarines, etc. And I see that Pakistan is responding to that and will continue to respond to that. This a race towards mutual destruction. It has to be stopped.”
At MIT Hoodbhoy studied under people who were involved in the Manhattan Project — the US research project that produced the first nuclear weapons. “I had the good fortune of studying under Professor Philip Morrison who is one of the people who was very important to the project, together with others such as Victor Weisskopf and Bernard Feld. I am still in contact with one of the people who made the hydrogen bomb — Richard Garwin. But Garwin is now a major force for peace. Once you start getting over the technical challenge of making the bomb, and you start thinking about what the bomb can do, every rational human will come to the conclusion that it has to be done away with.”
Hoodbhoy clearly has strong views on a host of issues. Would he ever consider a role in politics? “I would get maybe five votes,” he says, laughing. “Maybe 50 or 500, but not more. People like me are too small a minority. Besides I don’t have in me the stuff that makes a politician.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.