A recollection of Abdus Salam and His mistreatment in the Muslim world by Faheem Hussain. It is such a tragedy that we did not recognize a real hero while he was still alive. Now, as we rcome close to remembering his 10th anniversary, may be there can be some hope that the next generation of Pakistanis will learn to have a passion for science, knowledge and general curiosity like this man from Jhang, Pakistan.
There were two bits of news during the last month which got me thinking of the nature of the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani states. The first was that the website of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, announced that its Director, Prof. K. R. Sreenivasan, recently visited Saudi Arabia. Why should this news be of interest to readers of this newspaper in Pakistan?
Sreenivasan is the third Director of the ICTP after Prof. Abdus Salam, the Pakistani Nobel Laureate, the first and founding director of this world famous physics research institute. It’s good news that Sreenivasan went to Saudi Arabia to promote cooperation between the ICTP and the scientific community of that country. But what readers will perhaps not know is the shabby treatment that Saudi Arabia gave to Prof. Salam.
Saudi Arabia always refused entry to the premier scientist of the Islamic world because he belonged to what they (the Saudis) considered a heretic sect of Islam. I knew Salam very well and all of us who met him recall how this refusal really hurt him. Throughout his life he wanted to visit Saudi Arabia and to perform Hajj and Umrah. This wish was denied to him. Let alone perform Umrah he was not even allowed to set foot on Saudi soil. Of course a non-Muslim like Sreenivasan is ok with the Saudis. Contrast the treatment of Salam with the way Jewish, Christian and scholars of other religions were treated in the heyday of Islamic culture way back then a thousand light years ago.
As an aside let me also recall that many of our so-called Muslim physicists from Pakistan and other Islamic countries, who do not consider Qadanis as Muslims, would say their Eid prayers with Salam as Imam in Trieste (I won’t name names!). This because he was the Director of the Centre and would invite all Muslims for Eid prayers in his room and the visitors from Islamic countries did not dare refuse because Salam was the boss and controlled the purse strings. They were afraid of offending him and thus losing the privilege of visiting the ICTP. As always Mammon is stronger than God.
The Saudi fear of Salam went all the way to actively discouraging Saudi Universities from establishing cooperative links with the ICTP. I know of a specific case of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran trying to establish a cooperation programme with the ICTP during Salam’s lifetime. The faculty and the head of the university had agreed to this programme, which would have enabled their physicists to improve their research activities. The ICTP, under Salam, had no objection to this. But when this proposal went to the higher authorities it was quashed and no links were established. It was if just establishing links with Salam’s Centre would somehow have contaminated Saudi Arabian scientists. Perhaps the contamination the authorities feared was that their scientists may have become good scientists by which I mean that they could have developed critical thinking, which was a hall mark of Salam as of most good scientists.
But Saudi Arabia was not the only Islamic country to treat Salam in this shabby way. The worst offender was his own country,
Pakistan. The second relevant news this last month was the visit of three Nobel Prize winners to Pakistan. These three distinguished scientists were given royal treatment. They were flown in on government expense and stayed at the luxury Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. While here they gave public lectures and met young students to inspire them to do science. This is all very laudable. I am sure that hearing and talking to these distinguished scientists must have been quite inspiring to the young minds, although what these scientists themselves thought of the low level of questions (mostly about religion and science, some of these questions coming from some of our so-called renowned scientists) put to them at one of these meetings is better left unsaid. But my point here is to contrast their visit with the treatment meted out to Salam whenever he visited Pakistan.
Of course he would be treated well, would meet the President and Prime Minister, would meet some scientists and so on. But he was never allowed to address a public meeting and he was never allowed to interact with young students. Meeting him would have inspired young Pakistanis more than meeting European or US scientists. This was denied to them. I remember, that after Salam got his Nobel Prize in 1979, my university, at that time, QAU, decided to give him an Honorary Degree. The degree awarding ceremony should have been held on the QAU campus but, coincidently or not so coincidently, the Jamiat students started an anti-Qadiani campaign on the campus and gheraoed the head of the Economics Department at that time. This led to a flare-up between the Jamiat and leftist students involving a shooting and police being called to the campus. The end result was that Salam could not be invited to the campus and he was given his Honorary Degree at a ceremony in the National Assembly! In contrast Annemarie Schimmel received her honorary degree on the campus. The fact is that although the Department of Physics at QAU was set up by a large number of his students he, himself, could never visit the campus for fear of student unrest. Ironically, Prof. Gerard ‘t Hooft (one of the Nobel Prize winners referred to above) was able to visit the QAU campus as he was one of the invited speakers at the 12th Regional Conference on Mathematical Physics which was held on the campus. Ironic because ‘t Hooft proved a fundamental theorem (for which he received the Nobel Prize), which established the correctness of Salam’s unification theory.
The instances of the shabby treatment meted out to Salam by the Pakistani state are many. An outstanding example was the story of the successor of Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow as the Director General of UNESCO in the mid 80s. Salam keenly wanted this position as he believed that he could have used it to further the cause of science and culture in the developing countries. Many of us thought at that time that he would have made an excellent Director General of UNESCO. Not only did Pakistan not present him as its candidate (in fact he was proposed by Jordan) but it proposed its own candidate (Sahibzada Yakub Khan of all people!) for the position. This effectively killed Salam’s chances of becoming the Director General because the argument given by other countries was that if even your own country does not support you how can we vote for you. As a result Federico Mayor of Spain was selected as the Director General.
This year, 2006, is a particularly significant year for Salam. He was born on 29th January 1926 and died on 21 November 1996. There were no articles in Pakistani newspapers, let alone other celebrations, to mark the 80th birth anniversary of
Pakistan’s greatest scientist. In fact all major English language newspapers refused to publish an article written by Prof. Riazuddin, the Director of the National Centre for Physics (and one of Salam’s first students), commemorating his birth anniversary. This article was sent to major English dailies before 29 January but the response was totally negative. Also there are no plans afoot to mark the 10th anniversary of Salam’s death which falls on the 26th of November of this year.
Whether in life or in death Salam was not honoured in his home country. Many of us recall the leading role played by him in setting up and strengthening the PAEC along with I.H. Usmani and Munir Ahmed Khan. Nobody from the PAEC or from the government went to Salam’s funeral in Rabwah in 1996. It is worth recalling that it was Salam’s wish to be buried on Pakistani soil. I organised a memorial meeting for Salam in November 1997 at the ICTP in Trieste and no one from the PAEC attended this meeting or even expressed an interest in attending it.
It is not too late to make amends posthumously. Perhaps the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and other scientific institutions can organise a grand memorial meeting for Salam this November 21st. This would go some way to repaying our debts to his contributions to the development of science in Pakistan. But given the present atmosphere in the country I very much doubt if they will have the courage and honesty to do this.
Foreign Faculty Professor
COMSATS Institute of Information Technology
National Centre for Physics, Islamabad