Extremism haunts Pakistan’s Nobel Laureates

Pakistan’s two citizens – Theoretical Physicist Dr. Abdus Salam and a teen-age girl Malala Yousufzai won Nobel Prize, one in 1979 and the other after 35 years in 2014, but despite being the symbol of honor for their country, they faced the same unfortunate situation of being away from motherland for threat to their life sounding a message that country continues plunging in deep ravines of extremism.

Dr. Abdus Salam, who had rendered great services for development of science & technology sector in Pakistan, had shared Noble Prize for his contribution in Electroweak Unification in 1979 and a courageous teen-age girl Malala Yousafzai, hailing from a conflict zone of the country, is the joint winner with Indian peace activist Kailash Satyarthi in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announced recently.

Country’s first Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdus Salam was held as one of the leading scientists of his time but we simply refuse to acknowledge him. Even the TV channels did not refer to him when announcing Malala’s prize.

Dr Salam, for whom institutes had been named at Trieste in Italy, one of the leading centers of physics in the world as well as at other places, is a man few children even know the name of in his own country. Till the year that he died at the age of 70 in 1996 at Oxford in the UK, he was virtually unable to return home for fear that he would become a target in a climate where the members of Ahmadiyya community were subjected to more and more violence. His grave at Rabwah in Punjab province is visited by only a few.

There is no monument in his name, and the small but tiny bungalow at which he was born in Jhang city stands deserted. In fact, after he won the Nobel Prize, Dr Abdus Salam was ‘rewarded’ in his own country by being barred from lecturing at public universities within it under pressure from right wing student groups. Elsewhere in the world, he spoke at the most prestigious colleges: Imperial College, London, Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge and Yale.

Dr Salam quietly sent home money to the country he loved to be used to teach science to children. He offered to pay for science centers to be set up. His contributions have never been acknowledged. Even after he was named one of the key scientists behind the discovery of the so called ‘God particle’, the mysterious particle which is said to give mass to matter, and is one of the greatest achievements in science for the last 100 years, he was not spoken of at home.

Dr. Salam was a science advisor to the Government of Pakistan from 1960 to 1974, a position from which he played a major and influential role in Pakistan’s science infrastructure. Salam was responsible for not only major developments and contributions in theoretical and particle physics, but promoting scientific research to maximum levels in his country as well. Salam was the founding director of Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), and responsible for the establishment of the Theoretical Physics Group (TPG) in Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). As Science Advisor, Salam played an integral role in Pakistan’s development of peaceful use of nuclear energy, and may have contributed to development of atomic bomb project of Pakistan in 1972; for this, he is viewed as the “scientific father” of this program in the views of the scientists who researched under his scientific umbrella. In 1974, Abdus Salam departed from his country, in protest, after the Pakistan Parliament passed a controversial parliamentary bill declaring the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as non-Muslim. The then government of Pakistan led by Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had to move the bill to appease the right wing parties who had launched agitation against his government. Many years later in 1998, following the country’s nuclear tests, the Government of Pakistan issued a commemorative stamp, as a part of “Scientists of Pakistan”, to honor the services of Salam.

And now in case of Malala the honor that should have been hailed with widespread joy across the country has been somewhat muted because of her controversial status. Certain quarters question her winning the Nobel Prize: Why not former Prime Minister Ms. Benazir Bhutto was honored with this prize for sacrificing her life for peace and democracy? Why Mualana Abdul Sattar Edhi has been neglected despite spending his life for social service?

In fact a deliberate campaign was launched to malign Malala soon after she was shot by Taliban in 2012, when she was dubbed a western agent. Claims were made that she had faked the injuries; the accusations were hurled that she had done nothing at all to win international acclaim and that she was a puppet in her father’s hands. All this appeared to be rooted in jealously, ignorance and the right leaning mindset that seems to have become the norm in our country.

Fortunately, after the Nobel Prize announcement, Malala has to a degree been granted the status of hero by most of the people of Pakistan. There is talk of universities being built in her name and persons who initially said they hated her appear to be changing their mind, mainly as a result of the international accolades that have poured in for the girl from Swat who at 17 becomes the world’s youngest winner of the prestigious prize.

So, maybe Pakistan would be able to take some pride in Malala Yousafzai and people will try to understand her story a little better. While this story centers around her calls for the right to education for all children and especially girls around the world made with an especially powerful voice since 2013, there is more to it than that.

Malala, educated at a tiny run-down school in a dingy street in Mingora town of Khyber Pakhtoonkhaw province, must be applauded for reaching the point where she today stands. Simply acquiring an education is hard enough for deprived children in the country – all the more so if they are girls. Malala was able to acquire not only this but also to mastering English to near perfection mainly through the encouragement of her father who has also been labeled as a villain. Malala has now become an international icon of resistance, women’s empowerment and right to education. There are many people in Pakistan for whom Malala’s name has become synonymous with the fight against extremism and the Taliban.

In fact, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a human rights activist known for his works of quiet philanthropy in Swat should be held up as a man of courage who dared to go against tradition and allow his daughter to develop a voice, an opinion and a strong will of her own.

On social media and on other forums, Malala continues to be debated, labeled as a person who enjoys only ‘westernized’ citizens’ support.

Malala has been portrayed as a western agent in Pakistan – a country brimming with anti-West sentiment. Anyone seen as pro-West in the country becomes a target for scorn, ridicule, hatred, and even violence.

“Isn’t it ironic that Pakistan is considered a safe place for national and international terrorists but not for its own female population?” some human rights activists opined. “We have to change this scenario, and also the patriarchal mindset which supports violence against women.”

Despite such perils of extremism hounding her, Malala is determined to continue her mission. “Talibans are the terrorists who have made the lives of people miserable, but I will return soon to my motherland,” she said in a recent TV interview. She intends to build schools for the children, especially the girls, spending all of her prize money. Some education projects are already underway in Swat.

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