Pakistan’s treatment of Dr Abdus Salam represents our collective bigotry

At the outset I would like to issue a clarification that I am not an Ahmadi. The reason as to why I am forced to do this is that since I have penned several articles in support of the Ahmadi community the common ‘allegation’ I have read on social media is that I am an Ahmadi and therefore defending my own community. Of course, sometimes this is accompanied by the choicest of invectives and demands that a “Murtad” (an apostate) like me should be hanged.

I would like to make it clear to all such ‘real’ Muslims that you do not have to share the beliefs of any religious community in order to demand that they be treated with respect and dignity. My support for the Ahmadi community is based on my conscience, empathy and, above all, an unshakeable belief that Pakistan should treat its citizens equally and avoid discrimination based on faith and ethnicity. I am a secular Muslim and firmly believe that the state has nothing to do with someone’s faith, something which the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, also believed. In his most famous speech delivered on 11th August, 1947, he said:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

These were extraordinary words, laying out Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan, though that speech is conspicuously missing from our official records. Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, Pakistan has evolved in the complete opposite direction of Jinnah’s vision, and nowhere is this contradiction more evident than the treatment meted out to the Ahmadis. It is my belief, which I have articulated here before also, that when it comes to the Ahmadis we as a nation have lost our collective conscience and even our sanity. It is the one issue where literally all the stakeholders try to outdo each other. Moreover, I also firmly believe that the hatred against the Ahmadi community is a manufactured outcome of the way the issue has been politicised as the Pakistani state has cultivated a civic nationalism.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the way Atif Mian, a world-renowed economist, and an Ahmadi, who is teaching at Princeton, was not allowed to deliver a lecture on Zoom to the students of the prestigious Institute of Business Administration (IBA). For me, it was a matter of extreme shame that a person of his standing and calibre was treated in such a manner just because of his faith. Mian is considered one of the top economists and someone who is perhaps likely to receive a Nobel Prize in future. But then again, I should not have been surprised by how Mian has been treated because Pakistan has done even worse to Abdus Salam, an even greater intellect and an actual recipient of the Nobel Prize. Both Mian and Salam, in addition to their intellectual prowess, have one thing in common: their faith. Hence, despite their outstanding intellect, fame and services to Pakistan, the fact that Mian and Salam belong to the Ahmadi community makes them the target of extreme and irrational hatred in Pakistan, a nation which while showing such bigotry is also obsessed with Islamophobia in the West.

Salam is greatly respected in the West, and in the rest of the world, and not just by the scientific community. A few days ago, a friend of mine, who happens to be an Ahmadi, sent me a news link according to which Salam’s house in London has been declared to be an English Heritage site, and a blue plaque acknowledging this has also been installed at Salam’s former residence. The plaque reads:

“Abdus Salam, 1926-1996. Physicist, Nobel Laureate and champion of science in developing countries lived here”.

This is the latest honour in the long list of honours which the West has bestowed on Salam. Upon seeing this my mind immediately went to a recent viral video showing some youngsters in Gujranwala “proudly” blackening the photograph of Salam; the latest affront to a long list of affronts which Pakistan has ‘bestowed’ upon on him; and I am sure this is by no means the last one.

This article does not intend to highlight Salam’s outstanding scientific achievements but to instead remind us how we have mistreated him due to his faith and, in doing so, have revealed our collective bigotry. It takes a truly special kind of bigotry to humiliate a Nobel Laureate in Physics when we as a nation are so far behind the rest of the world in the field of science and technology. After all, Salam is one of the few Pakistanis who has seriously impacted the world of science, and in doing so has given Pakistan some degree of international fame and recognition.

In 1979, when Salam won the Nobel Prize, he proudly referred to his faith and culture. He said:

“I am the first Muslim who has got the prize for science, breaking the barrier, taking away that sense of inferiority that, over the centuries, has come over the Muslim youth. This has been done by somebody who feels no conflict between his religion, his culture and science.” 

It was ironic that while the entire world recognised and acknowledged what he was saying, his own country did not accept him as a Muslim due to the Second Amendment, which in 1974 had declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. In fact, had Salam said those words while in Pakistan after 1984 (the year Ziaul Haq passed an ordinance penalising Ahmadis if they called themselves Muslims), he could have been put behind bars.

After he received the Nobel Prize, initially the government did try to recognise his achievement since it was impossible to ignore something of such magnitude. For example, General Ziaul Haq awarded Salam the Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1980. However, the response from the Pakistani society was hardly respectful. In fact, in 1980, when Salam was invited to Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), his visit had to be cancelled since the students threatened to break his legs if he entered the premises. After this incident, Government College, his alma mater, also cancelled his invitation.

From 1980 onwards, the government started to actively ignore him, and textbooks simply omitted his monumental achievements. The Zia regime did not back his bid to become Director General of UNESCO and instead put forth another candidate, even though Salam, due to his achievements as well as international fame and recognition, had much better credentials. After the Zia regime, both the Pakistan People Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regimes also ignored him. Benazir Bhutto declined to meet him in 1992, while Nawaz Sharif omitted Salam’s name when mentioning the list of distinguished alumni of Government College during his speech at a convocation at the university.

Salam died in 1996 and his body was brought back to Pakistan for burial. However, even in death, he was not spared the humiliation as his gravestone was defaced by removing the word “Muslim” on the orders of the government. In the words of Zakir Thaver, the producer of the brilliant Netflix documentary on Salam,

“The first Muslim to win the prize in science has the very word ‘Muslim’ whitened out. It’s the final affront to the most illustrious son of the soil.”

And to put this grave insult in proper perspective, one must watch the aforementioned documentary, particularly the segment where Salam’s British wife, Professor Louise Johnson, talks about him. As her voice breaks she says,

“He belonged to Pakistan. He always wanted to be buried there”.  

In 2016, Sharif decided to honour Salam by renaming the National Centre for Physics at the QAU in Islamabad the “Professor Abdus Salam Centre for Physics”. Apparently this signalled a reversal of years of neglect and it was duly appreciated in the international community. However, this move was vehemently criticised domestically, most vociferously by Sharif’s own son-in-law, Muhammad Safdar Awan, who in a tirade against the Ahmadis called Salam “controversial” and demanded the decision be revoked. In 2018, in order to ‘rectify’ the move, the National Assembly decided to name the Physics Department (admittedly a different entity) after a “Muslim” scientist.

As I stated earlier, it takes a special kind of bigotry to humiliate a person of Salam’s standing. Hence, due to our national hatred for Ahmadis we have indulged in that kind of bigotry while hypocritically crying about Islamophobia in the West.