Written Dec 2018 

Nestled in the outskirts of the city of Geneva, surrounded by French vineyards and the Swiss Alps, lies one of the most preeminent scientific institutions in the world. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is home to the world’s cutting edge and most sophisticated physics experiments. It is here that the particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is located and physicists use it to study the subatomic particles that make up the Universe.

As I make my way through the CERN campus during a recent research trip to the lab, my eyes fall upon the street named after the late Pakistani physicist Dr. Abdus Salam. As someone of Pakistani origin, it gives me great pride that the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, with such poor and humble roots, is being honored in this bastion of science.

Dr. Abdul Salam’s contributions to science are little appreciated outside the small circle of academics who delve into the complexities of high energy physics. To share some perspective, Salam helped create the theory now referred to as the Standard Model. This theory is currently the most accurate description of the interactions between all the elementary particles found in nature. It has been rigorously studied and has survived all experimental tests. Salam’s contribution to this endeavor was so seminal that earlier versions of the Standard Model bore his name and theory was referred to as the ‘GWS model’ – after its founders Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg and Abdul Salam.

In addition to his academic achievements, Salam exercised extraordinary scientific leadership in Pakistan. Virtually all of the country’s scientific infrastructure today can be traced back to initiatives he undertook as science advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology between 1960 and 1974. During his tenure Pakistan’s space program was founded, the country’s first nuclear reactor was set up and science education greatly flourished at universities. He produced a generation of brilliant physicists who went on to become renowned scholars and lead the country’s scientific institutions.

As I reflect on Dr. Abdus Salam’s magnanimous contributions, I am forced to wonder whether any of them could have been realized in today’s Pakistan. Salam was a member of the much maligned and persecuted Ahmadi religion. During his golden years, his faith largely did not interfere with his ability to contribute to Pakistani civil society. This, however, slowly started changing in the 1970’s when prejudices against Ahmadis were on the rise. Salam eventually left the country in 1974 when the government declared members of his faith to be outside the fold of Islam and disallowed them to refer to themselves as Muslims.

In the country’s current climate where religious fanaticism runs rampant, it is unfathomable that Salam would have been allowed to contribute in any meaningful way. The recent controversy surrounding renowned economist Dr. Atif Mian is a reminder of this harsh reality. Dr. Mian, who is also a member of the Ahmadi faith, was appointed to serve on Pakistan’s Economic Advisory Committee (EAC) by the newly elected PTI (Pakistan Tahreeké Insaaf) government this Fall. Given the trying economic conditions the country is facing, the Princeton scholar would have been the ideal person to serve on the committee.

However, only days after his appointment, far-right groups demanded his removal and threatened to hold protests across the country. In addition, even members of the opposition refused to stand by the government and took the opportunity to score political points by demanding Mian’s removal. To its credit, the PTI government initially stood by the appointment and made a refreshing defense of minority rights. However, it eventually succumbed to the pressure from fanatics and removed Mian from the EAC.

It wasn’t too long after this incident that religious extremism reared its ugly head in the country again. In a landmark ruling in November, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Asia Bibi. Bibi was convicted of blasphemy by a lower court and was sentenced to death in 2010. The Supreme Court found there to be insufficient evidence for the judgment and freed Bibi after she had already spent nine years in prison. Amending the blasphemy laws remain a highly controversial subject in the country as they have a history of being invoked to settle personal vendettas.

Following Asia Bibi’s acquittal, violent protests by right-wing fanatics brought the nation to a standstill as they rioted in the streets for three days. Led by the TLP (Tahreeké Labbaik Pakistan) party, they called for overthrowing of the government and killing of the judges that decreed the ruling. The new government, once again, bowed to the protesters and had to negotiate a settlement with them to bring the riots to an end.

The sheer ability of these groups to mobilize thousands and hold the government hostage speaks volumes on how serious a problem religious fundamentalism is in the country. When such intolerant and puritanical thought becomes so widespread, it becomes a threat to society at large. Anyone who doesn’t agree with these groups is labeled an apostate and their life is under danger. The assassination of politician Salman Taseer in 2011 is a sad reminder of the costs associated with combating this odious brand of religiosity.

Under the new government, led by philanthropist and reformer Imran Khan, Pakistan is undergoing a historic transition and it has a unique opportunity to root out some of its most deeply rooted problems. Despite the PTI government’s commendable focus on human development and commitment to ending corruption, it has largely failed to highlight the need to systematically address and wipe out extremist ideology. If serious steps are not taken to this end, law and order in the nation will continue to be hostage to the whims and wishes of these hateful groups.

In his maiden address as Prime Minister, Imran Khan vowed to rebuild Pakistan on the principles laid out in the historic Charter of Madinah which was constituted by the Prophet Muhammad in his city-state. Inspired by the same Charter, a group of over 300 Muslim scholars signed the Marrakesh Declaration in 2016 reaffirming the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries. They also committed to developing the legal framework needed to integrate minorities as fully enfranchised citizens of Muslim states. The PTI government would do well to take notice of this declaration and work towards implementing it in its vision of ‘Naya Pakistan’.

Saladin Ayyubi, the celebrated Sultan who liberated Jerusalem, famously appointed a Jew to be his personal physician. Maimonides, who was also a prolific scholar of the Torah, loyally continued serving the royal court of the Muslims years after Saladin’s death. This was the tolerance, compassion and mindset of Islamic society over nine centuries ago. A return to these Prophetic virtues is imperative if Pakistan aspires to become the nation its founding fathers set out to establish.