Science is a common heritage of humankind. It unites people from all backgrounds, irrespective of caste, color, and creed. The recipients of the Nobel Prize are revered in their home countries and showered with state-sponsored awards and funds so they can advance their fields and continue serving mankind. Every year I am confronted with a bittersweet moment of the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Sweet, because I’m a scientist and it celebrates the achievements of the scientific community across the globe. Bitter, because it is a grim reminder of the fact that an unsung hero of Pakistan, the Nobel Prize recipient of 1979 in Physics Dr. Abdus Salam, remains a tragic figure at best. His achievements are overlooked in his home country Pakistan, due to his affiliation with a persecuted community, the Ahmadiyya Muslims.
Dr. Abdus Salam was born in a small village of Jhang, Punjab during the British rule (now in Pakistan). He was a genius from a young age with an extraordinary thirst for knowledge. Early on, he established a reputation across the state of Punjab (Pakistan) and later at the University of Cambridge (Alma Mater) for his outstanding achievements. In 1951, after receiving his doctorate, he traveled back to Pakistan only to find strong opposition from his peers, which was rooted deeply in the anti-Ahmadiyya riots. It was then when he decided to travel back to his Alma Mater and continue his work in particle physics that ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize.
Regretfully, Pakistan has failed to recognize Dr. Abdus Salam’s achievements at the national level, depriving generations of a wealth of knowledge and technical expertise in the field of Sciences. Feeling anguished and defeated, in 1964 Salam founded the Abdus Salam International College for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. This institution became a symbol of excellence and built a strong foundation to support research in developing countries.
Unfortunately, this dark page of discrimination by faith from the history of Pakistan continues to echo into the present. After his party won Pakistan’s 2018 elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan established an economic council consisting of talented advisors who would generously donate their time for the country. One of the members, Dr. Atif Mian, a leading economist who now resides in the United States, was invited to serve on this council. Mian belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The news of his religious affiliation caused an extreme backlash from the mullahs in Pakistan who demanded that Dr. Atif Mian be removed from the council. Long story short, Mian had to voluntarily resign from this position and Prime Minister Khan ultimately conceded to the demands of the mullahs.
Knowledge breeds understanding, and understanding breeds tolerance. Hence, we must dispel our bigotries and foster a culture of pluralism and pave the way for peace and unity. Netflix has recently uploaded the documentary Salam, the First ****** (Muslim) Nobel Laureate. Although this film serves as an interlude from the sufferings borne by other people, it highlights the everyday battles minorities have to suffer while living under the infamous blasphemy laws of Pakistan. The film depicts a nation facing a constant struggle between the liberal class and the religious fundamentalists.
Living in the United States has taught me that a person is not recognized by their background, but by the scale of their achievements – hopefully Pakistan will soon learn to do the same.