Pakistan’s slide into theocracy

Pakistan is a country that seems to be standing at the intersection of secular and religious currents. One leads to a modern state that could become a powerful force in science, technology, and commerce. The other leads to a backward looking theocracy. Although modernism will eventually win out, as it always does, the signs are not hopeful in the short run. There are many signs that the craven political leadership is giving in to the clerics and religious fanatics.

The name Abdus Salam may not be familiar to the general public but among physicists he is well known, having won the Nobel prize in 1979 along with Steven Hawking Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for their work in unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces using, among other things, the Higgs mechanism that we have heard so much about recently.

Salam was born in 1926 in India in that part that later became part of Pakistan and maintained his strong connections with his home country even as he worked in the west and developed an international reputation. I had assumed that he was highly honored by the people of Pakistan, who would have been proud that their country had produced a great scientist.

But it turns out that Salam was essentially a non-person in his home country. He had apparently left Pakistan in protest in 1974 because of religion. This was not because he was a disbeliever. In fact he was quite a devout Muslim. But he was a member of the Ahmadi sect of Islam that believes that their spiritual leader Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was a prophet of God. This has been branded a heresy by orthodox Muslims, who say that Mohammed was the last prophet.

The Pakistani government even went to far as to amend the constitution “to declare that members of the sect were not considered Muslims under Pakistani law.” The pettiness goes even further, reaching levels of intolerance that would be laughable were they not so dangerous.

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 to “pose” as Muslims, declare their faith publicly, call their places of worship mosques or perform the Muslim call to prayer. They can be punished with prison and even death.

As a result, Salam even had to cancel visits to Pakistan to talk about his Nobel prize-winning work because of threats against him and although his body was buried in Pakistan after his death in 1996, a judge ordered that the word ‘Muslim’ be stricken from his gravestone where it had once read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate.”

Nice work, Pakistan! I’m sure that studying the Koran in your religious schools will enable you to produce another Nobel prize-winner in science.


  1. Mano Singham says

    Sigh. That is what happens when your mind goes into autopilot. I had originally wanted to write that Salam was not as well known as Hawking but deleted it but clearly Hawking’s name continued sloshing around in my mind.

  2. says

    Well let’s face it, it’s well known that there are far too many Steves. And then to add insult to injury, we have to keep track of which is Stephen and which is Steven. I ask you!

  3. says

    But seriously. This is so sad.

    Terry Gross of Fresh Air talks to Ahmed Rashid fairly often about Pakistan’s slide into theocracy. Rashid sounds a little more depressed each time.

  4. Arkady says

    I remember a Pakistani friend on facebook posting his shame about this: he’d only just learned that his country’s one Nobel winner even existed, they weren’t taught about him in school.

    (I met this friend when he started his bioscience PhD in the UK, not sure if he ever plans on going back permanently. Most of his equally-educated older siblings have already left)

  5. MNb0 says

    Pakistan (and especially its conflict with India) doesn’t get as much attention as the Middle East, Iran and North-Korea, but I think the political situation there at least as worrying. Perhaps modernity will win, but at what price? It can be very high, as Europe learned between 1939 and 1945.

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