How Pakistan treats its scientists

Published: November 4, 2010
The writer is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, and the author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press, 2009)

The writer is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, and the author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press, 2009)

Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdul Salam, was a physicist whose work helped us understand the cosmological forces that keep our material space in order. Sadly, he was ostracised because his faith did not meet the merits of this ‘land of the pure.’ What a tragedy it was for Pakistan that the man who wanted to set up a research centre in his homeland and wore a traditional sherwani and turban to the Nobel Prize ceremony, as a mark of pride in his culture, was rejected by his own people simply because he was an ‘Ahmadi.’ Even so, Dr Salam insisted on being buried in Pakistan where, sadly, fanatics defaced even his grave with epithets.

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview a promising young physicist of Pakistani origin who, too, has abandoned her land of birth to seek a life of intellectual freedom elsewhere. Dr Nergis Mavalvala is a tenured professor of physics at MIT and was recently awarded the MacArthur Fellowship — one of the highest honours in American scholarship comprising an individual prize of half a million dollars. She is the third Pakistani American to receive this honour — historian Ayesha Jalal and artist Shahzia Sikander being the other two.

Born to a Parsi family in Karachi, Dr Mavalvala fondly remembers her schooling at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi, where a Sri Lankan refugee science teacher named Ranjit Bulathsinghala was among her inspirations for pursuing a career in science. Proceeding to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she went on to do her higher studies at MIT and Caltech and is now one of the leading researchers in identifying gravitational waves that can have profound implications for our understanding of the universe. Raising her two-year-old son with her Indian American partner, she is a role model of multicultural multitasking!

Dr Mavalvala’s story shows us how science can transcend cultural barriers at multiple levels and lead to a flourishing career. Many in Pakistan continue to malign America but her story also reflects why the United States ends up being a home for so many of us who don’t want to be subjected to the tyranny of cultural exclusion. Yes, there are many problems in America, including incipient racism, but when it comes to practicing excellence in science, the country is unsurpassed in its commitment. Even with the rise of Christian fundamentalists who condemn the study of evolutionary biology and cosmology, the US department of education and university accreditation committees have resisted meddling in the curriculum by ideological zealots.

When I asked Dr Mavalvala if she would consider returning to Pakistan, she hesitated for a moment but then responded with genuine humility about the remote possibility if the opportunity arose during a sabbatical year. Let’s hope that Pakistan will welcome expatriates such as Dr Mavalvala to spend whatever time they can spare to help advance our science curriculum in higher education. Such scholars are not after some grand pay packages during sabbatical but rather an independent and facilitative higher education establishment which supports their work. Unfortunately, higher education has been acutely politicised in Pakistan and well-intentioned efforts are frequently undermined by petty bickering and turf wars which must cease. Scholars can disagree about the structure of reforms but to attract talent we will need to first address the question of academic and scientific independence which should never be impeded by theological forces.

Muslim scientists in the golden age of Iberian science were able to flourish because of such independence and their willingness to engage across religions. That tradition has been sadly lost to the dogmatic edicts of the pulpit. Scientists are afraid to speak their mind for the fear of students telling them that they are blasphemous or being labelled by the establishment as heretics or conspirators. To be a truly powerful nation, we need science at the grass-roots and not just the kind that can help us build bombs of every assortment.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (42)

  • Nov 4, 2010 - 12:15AM

    Well, sadly for most people the utility of scientists is limited to making nuclear bombs. Recommend

  • Muhammad Zeeshan
    Nov 4, 2010 - 12:24AM

    Speaking to a popular tv host on ARY channel, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan said “Hamein abhi tak son of the soil nahee samjha jata hai”


  • Amna
    Nov 4, 2010 - 12:33AM

    I agree with some points of this article. But it seems this is a religion-focused article versus an article based on genuine concern for science. Sounds like any other article talking about how minorities are being treated….

    And what about Abdul-Qadeer Khan?? No doubt he has bestowed a huge favor upon PakistanRecommend

  • Syed
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:02AM

    Excellent indeed !!Recommend

  • Ayesha Ijaz Khan
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:03AM

    Excellent piece. And also remember reading other good pieces by you—look forward to more. On a side note, please do read the 20-odd pages dedicated to Abdus Salam in K K Aziz’ book, “The Coffee House of Lahore”. In a telling account of a conversation between the author and the esteemed scientist, the latter talks of his humiliation at GC Lahore and hints how a lot more was at play than simply his faith. Not to undermine the effect his faith had on his being ostracised, but perhaps his genius turned out to be a liability in equal measure. How unfortunate.Recommend

  • Nov 4, 2010 - 1:13AM

    excellent piece dr sahab Recommend

  • Syed Husain
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:41AM

    This is for sure a Pro-Ahmedi newspaper, every 2nd news or article is about them? has anyone else observed the same?
    (I am against injustice to any one including Ahmedis and other minorities in Pakistan but has strongly felt that this newspaper keeps Ahmedis in the news all the time) Recommend

  • Talha
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:54AM

    The Parsi community, much like the other communities of Pakistan such as Ahmadi’s, Agha Khanis, Bohras, Hindus, Christian and Sikhs are exceptional people who have achieved a lot for the country but are sadly not recognised or used for betterment of our nation.

    If Pakistan was only composed of these groups, it would be a great country that would be admired globally, unfortunately the hardline elements wrecked the whole thing.

    Dr Salam eventually set up Trieste in Italy where a high number of Pakistanis get a place to study, people shunned him and his institute while welcoming madrassas.

    Look what happened today because of such choices. Recommend

  • Nov 4, 2010 - 2:24AM

    Great article. @ Syed Husain – What pakistani science article would be complete without the mention of Dr Salam. I am glad the Express Tribune, unlike the Pakistani govt and people like yourself, has taken up journalism as transmission of the truth without fear and bigotry.

    For ages and even today, most media turns a blind eye on the atrocities the Ahmadi Muslims face in Pakistan. Why does it itch you that one or two newspapers have garnered the ethical courage to cover their atrocities or write the truth boldly?

    Coming to the pro-Ahmedi thing.. what is pro-Ahmedi in this article? The mention of Salam as a great scientist? or that his grave was tampered with by religious bigots? Recommend

  • Mubarik
    Nov 4, 2010 - 2:30AM

    @Syed Husain, It is Pakistani bigoted Mullah who keeps Ahmadis in the news all the time due to his ‘Holy’ deeds. This news paper kept Shia’s also in news when they were killed by ‘Holy warriors during Ashura.Recommend

  • Humanity
    Nov 4, 2010 - 2:32AM

    @Amna “And what about Abdul-Qadeer Khan?? No doubt he has bestowed a huge favor upon Pakistan

    The nation of professional beggars should eat its nuclear weapons, while the ‘strategic assets” blow the country bit by bit into smithereens and the state-certified Muslims serve Islam by desecrating the dead.

    The strangle hold of orthodox religious zealots have stripped the nation of its humanity. It has lost all sense of right from wrong. Honor, character and integrity are characteristics of the living. Gratitude is an attribute of the humble. The ignorant and the arrogant can’t see beyond themselves.

    This is a morally dead nation of chest thumping superior Muslims marching towards utopia, where scientists are irrelevant!Recommend

  • faraz
    Nov 4, 2010 - 2:49AM

    According to the great islamic jurist Imam Ghazali, the great muslim scientists Ibn-e-Sina and Al-Farabi were heretics. Imam Ghazali considered maths as the work of devil. Interestingly, Imam Ghazali is also considered a philosopher by us! Recommend

  • Hasan
    Nov 4, 2010 - 4:29AM

    We are fundamentally a destructive mindset society. Even when we construct something it’s for destruction otherwise it’s not worth constructing and the more it can destruct the more we appreciation it’s the creator.Recommend

  • Sameer
    Nov 4, 2010 - 6:05AM

    Nation is not built because of science, but of justice and rule of law. This is what our primary aim should be. Recommend

  • shy
    Nov 4, 2010 - 7:31AM

    Nice n well written article.Recommend

  • Hina
    Nov 4, 2010 - 9:16AM

    How is this only a religion-focused Article?or a PRO AHMADI NEWSPAPER?

    If pointing out the bitter truth hurts you thn sure you can def come up with such a lame conclusion…that’s totally up to people like you to decide!
    but to pretend your an ignorant is a whole other issue…the recent article you read on AHMADI’S was merely a NEWS highlighting what really goes on in our nasty society to minorities and how badly they are abused including AFTER DEATH and here u are complainin abt this newspaper bein PRO really?whts wrong with u people?
    stay focuseddd!!!!

    and abt this article…VERY VERY WELL WRITTEN!
    Im glad the writer pointed out the descrimination people have to go through in our country no matter what they;ve achieved and have done for the country…it doesnt matter how great one is the only thing tht matters is the RELIGION and CAST…no one gives a damn abt the rest.

    I dono wht our society needs in order to change their thinking..but i hope they get out of his weird-time thts come upon us soon and start recognizing and giving people the true credit they deserve.Recommend

  • Discostu
    Nov 4, 2010 - 9:38AM

    I disagree with the comment that states this paper keeps the ahmedis in the spotlight. I think it is our duty to highlight the injustice and brutality against our fellow citizens. Ich bin ein ahmedi.Recommend

  • Qasim
    Nov 4, 2010 - 9:53AM

    Great …………………………….. but question is Only royal families are bestowed with such kind of scholarships..Recommend

  • srinivasan
    Nov 4, 2010 - 11:48AM

    Even the comments from bloggers reflect the encroachment of Religion in every aspect of Pakistan. While even India felicitated the only Nobel laureate of Pakistan, his own country disowned him due to his religious affinity. While the other much reveared “scientiest” Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was once the darling of Pakistan and again is disowned now. Not that he is a holy cow, but maybe a thief of Nuclear secrets from DenmarkRecommend

  • Amna
    Nov 4, 2010 - 12:32PM

    @ Syed Husain: I’m surprised you are online ‘reading opinion’, when clearly you do not have the capacity to absorb alternative views. FYI: Parsi and Ahmadi- NOT the same thing. Please refrain from judges sects- leave that to God.Recommend

  • Asif Ali
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:21PM

    the following end of the article is just so TRUE!

    “”Scientists are afraid to speak their mind for the fear of students telling them that they are blasphemous or being labelled by the establishment as heretics or conspirators.””

    made me remem…ber the following incident about “Dr Younus Shaikh”, a teacher at a medical college in Islamabad, charged with blasphemy on account of remarks that a students claimed he made during a lecture. The students alleged that Dr Yonus Shaikh had said Prophet Mohammed’s parents were non-Muslims because they died before Islam existed. A judge ordered that Dr Younus Shaikh pay a fine of Rs100,000, and be hanged. In November 2003 he was acquitted after which he left Pakistan.
    Read about the Dr on Wiki:

    Read about the ever so great Dr Abdus Salam :
    “Dr. Abdus Salam: Beyond Physics”

    What has AQ Khan done, making money by nuclear proliferation to rouge states & a silly bloody Bomb, which already got made during world war 2!!! & stupid common people labelling it as an ISLAMIC BOMB!!! do these idiot have any idea that what destruction and sufferings an Atomic bomb brings?? it Kills without the distinction of unarmed young,old, children,women, mothers, daughters, orchards, LIFE!!! & yet these blind people dont hesitate a second to label it in name of ISLAM!!! shameless! this is what happens when Islam & politics are shamelessly intervoven for short term measures by myopic ulemas & preachers!!!Recommend

  • Syed A Husain
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:23PM

    Com’on guys be good sports..I am not justifying attrocities to any minority but you should have courage to listen to everyone’s comments and thoughts with patience..even if it is pro-ahmedi then what…we have many newspapers which are actually mouth piece of different aman is Pro MQM, Nawa-e-waqt Pro N-Leage Jasarat Pro- Jama’atis…express tribune expresses more about ahmedis then any other and then there are many enthusiasts and supporters like you guys who start flooding comments to praise the writer..Dr. Abdus Salam was one of the most gifted scientist Pakistan ever had and his contribution was recognized in the world by all and sundry except his own country fellows..which was injustice and ignorance..but why express tribune and its talented team has open a pandora box of news where they are pointing at the attrocities against ahmedis so much?? Recommend

  • Rana Amjad
    Nov 4, 2010 - 1:43PM

    Anybody highlighting the truth is mentioned as Ahmedi sympathiser or Gastapo+RAW+CIA+ MOSSAD conspiracy. We are living in a FOOL’S world!Recommend

  • Mahmood Hussain
    Nov 4, 2010 - 2:22PM

    I think in eyes of Pakistani only Dr. Qadeer is Scientist who still enjoying respect and honor ,even after confess of selling Nuclear Tech.
    I advice everyone here to search Dr. Qadeer profile on wikepedia . This would be helpful for ignorant Pakistani who think Dr. Qadeer is the sole hero of Nuclear Bomb of Pakistan.
    Moreover we are still ignorant that in 40 years of Nuclear program we had made just one 300MW plant with help of China. We had wasted more than 15 billion Dollars on Bomb which has worth nothing for our survival today Financially,morally,Economically .
    We are facing today the worst energy crisis due to our wrong policies. I don’t understand why our nation not support the scientist who work for wellbeing of people rather than scientist who work for demolish ion of mankind.Recommend

  • murassa sanaullah
    Nov 4, 2010 - 2:44PM

    nations donot progress with out science and technology, they are both important ,the govt. and private sector both should do to promote scienctific reserched. sadly we are anation whose first priority has never been education ,we do blame the govt,but our comman people also inthe same boat. the govt. could at least force big industrialist and multinationals to fund the the talents in all the fields of for thoughts and religion of talented people we should let it remain a personal matter,Pakistan was made by Quaid a land of peace ,where every one would have equal and btter oppurtunities irrespective of caste ,colour and religion.Recommend

  • BushraS
    Nov 4, 2010 - 3:31PM

    @Syed Husain: I do not agree with you mentioning that Express Tribune is a pro-Ahmadi paper or is the only paper who keeps Ahmadis IN the news all the time. For many decades, what has been happening to Ahmadis in this country has been consciously kept out of the newspapers and off the television. It is about time they start getting their fair representation in the media. Killing them IS news, exhuming their graves IS news, speaking out in support of their rights as humans and Pakistani citizen IS the right thing to do.

    If you do not favour the injustice against Ahmadis, as you say you do not, have you ever noticed or pointed out that X, Y or Z newspaper or tv channel have always kept that community OUT of the news?

    Having said that, everyone here has the patience and open-mindedness to hear others’ views. They have a right to disagree with them, which they have done so openly. If you had gotten hate replies to your comment, then you could’ve asked others to be “good sports”.

    Now about the article: Dr Ali thank you for introducing us to Dr Mavalvala. As a Pakistani, I am proud of her and her achievements. It was a good decision to write about her in an attempt to get the authorities to think about what are we, as a country, missing out on. Good job!Recommend

  • T Khan
    Nov 4, 2010 - 4:26PM

    Our Islamic bomb has silently and stealthy nuked us to the verge of destruction. From now on we should use our brains for peaceful purposes only.Recommend

  • Mawali
    Nov 4, 2010 - 6:02PM

    In a country with an effective literacy rate hovering doggedly around 25% give or take mostly give the same. I would settle for respect for education period. Pakistan spends a meager 1% of the really gross GDP. While, the PM spends millions on renovations to his palace . Ah, the poor beggars of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Anis Qureshi
    Nov 4, 2010 - 6:54PM

    Syed Hasan sahib the reason ahmadis are news is only because they are persecuted on daily basis. If you just read urdu newspapers you will understand what I am saying. It is the duty of all peace loving people to fight injustice and bigotry.Recommend

  • athar mahmood
    Nov 5, 2010 - 11:57AM

    Actually this article is about the scientists not about for as the persecution of ahmadies is concerned thy are persecuted since Mullah came in power.Urdu press does not give it importance as it required even they dont consider them ahmadies rather Qadianies.English press give it much importance as per law and this is according to the code of conduct of media. Recommend

  • Rana Amjad
    Nov 5, 2010 - 4:05PM

    Dr. Qadeer Khan is no scientist, he is a killer of humanity and a third rate smuggler. Dr. A. Salam was a Scientist but we did not recognized him since he was Ahmedi & as per Islamic Constitution of the Republic of Pakistan, they are non Muslims. Since when any constitution can declare anybody non Muslims, Christians, non Christians, etc. We are a LAUGHING STOCK in the whole world!Recommend

  • Abdul Aziz
    Nov 5, 2010 - 11:21PM

    Pakistanis should appreciate Express Tribune highlighting atrocities committed by them against helpless minorities, particularly Ahmadis, because they do not have any political group representing them. The Christians and Hindus have their representatives and thus can at least exert some pressure on the government to look after their interests. The matter should have been of interest to all the information media. The Prophet (sas) admonished Muslims to hold the hands of the perpetrators and the perpetrated. What the Exress Tribune is doing is exactly what the Prophet wanted all Muslims to do. Thank you Express tribune and may God bless your efforts.Recommend

  • Mohammad Ahmed Khan
    Nov 5, 2010 - 11:36PM

    @ Rana Amjad:

    It’s not just our constitution, Ahmadis have been declared as non-Muslims unanimously throughout the Muslim world…
    Very biased article! Recommend

  • Tan
    Nov 6, 2010 - 4:16AM

    Excellent article,,,,keep it upRecommend

  • Amna
    Nov 6, 2010 - 1:39PM

    @Rana Amjad: So only the United States and western countries have the right to build nuclear weapons and tell other countries to build or not? And anyone else gets nuclear info then they are killers of humanity? Abdul Qadeer Khan is not perfect but lets not let other countries and outsiders tell us how we need to think about any issue.

    As far as Abdus Salam is concerned…it is very sad we do not recognize his work as we should. About him being non-Muslim….yes he was non-Muslim….this is not just Pakistan and our constitution….the world accepts Ahmadis and non-Muslims.

    A hindu is callled hindu…christian a christian….so why do Ahmadis take offense. If you dont accept Muhammad PBUH as the last prophet…then you should not have a problem being recognized as a non-Muslim. It really should not be offensive. The treatment of Ahmadis such as not saying salam to them, or discrmination or exhuming the dead….is very condemnable… but merely calling a non-Muslim a non-Muslim….is a non-issue.Recommend

  • Narejo
    Nov 6, 2010 - 3:49PM

    Great article but I do not necessarily think that the well educated Pakistanis like Dr Mavalvala who decide to pursue greener pastures abroad or like to work or conduct their research in, say, U.S. are doing so because they are disillusioned with their country of origin. I think we should applaud them and celebrate their successes wherever they are because they are daughters and sons of the soil and they contribute to Pakistan in a lot of ways, even if they live abroad. Recommend

  • Narejo
    Nov 6, 2010 - 3:50PM

    A question to ponder: We hold doctors and engineers in very high esteem but is it not high time to realize that physicsts, chemists and other scientists are doing a commendable job as well and that they need to be respected and supported too?Recommend

  • Tahira
    Nov 8, 2010 - 3:05AM

    Thank you for writing this article. Dr. Abdus Salam left a legacy for the world and he should be paid great homage too. Instead, most Pakistanis and Muslims have failed to recognize the great work this Nobel laureates has done. It is really sad to know that all this is done merely because of his religious belief. Failing to recognize his achievements is a huge gap in Islamic history.Recommend

  • RAhmad
    Nov 9, 2010 - 9:05PM

    It is the misfortune of this country that God has blessed Pakistan with great people, but they couldn’t even recognize them. Dr. Abdul Salam is one of the great scientists of the world. The whole world gives him respect and feels proud to introduce him to students. He is the one who proudly wore his Pakistani clothes when he went to receive his Nobel prize, despite the fact that his own country men wanted to kill him and did not want to allow him to enter in the country. One of the great scientist who had full faith in God, he always showed it through his actions. He was a great Ahmadi Muslim. Recommend

  • Nov 22, 2010 - 11:14AM

    It is not just Ahmadiyya’s, In Pakistan if you are not Punjabi Sunny then you are not accepted. PeriodRecommend

  • Ali Murtaza Baloch
    Nov 22, 2010 - 4:20PM

    i salute Dr. Abdul Slam as ” Physicist ” when i studied him in religion aspect then its another issue because he is ” Ahmedi ” and Ahmedi are declared Non-Muslim but he was a great scientist and we all , Pakistani , salute him. He is proud of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Ali Murtaza Baloch
    Nov 22, 2010 - 4:23PM

    @ John, its not a matter in which u discussing this issue, i am ” Saraiki ” and living in Punjab so i never face this situation what you saying in your words. Recommend

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