Salaam Pakistan


Spite, misbegotten pride and prejudice


The scholar Ibn Khaldun in his seminal work the Muqaddimah states that “myths have nothing to do with history” and warns against “uncritical acceptance of historical data”, – particularly if it were based on fallacious arguments and testimonials, in an attempt to promote a particular bias. Such philosophical discourse was not replicated till three hundred years later by scholars such as Kant, Marx and Toynbee.

Seven hundred years later and it appears that this advice is still lost in today’s Pakistan, where there are factions opposing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to rename the Physics Center at Quaid Azam University Islamabad as Salam Center. A recent article in Jang newspaper mentioned that Professor Abdul Salaam was not a worthy claimant, as he had opposed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons aspiration at a meeting called by then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Furthermore it mentioned that Prof. Salaam threatened “never to set foot in Pakistan”. The article quotes from a book by Mr Zahid Malik who quotes Mr Bhutto’s former minister for religious affairs Maulna Kausar Niazi.

These statements could have been verified from any of three key ministers from Mr Bhutto cabinet who are still alive: Mr Rafi Raza, Mr Mumtaz Bhutto and Dr Mubashir Hasan. An investigative journalist is expected to prudently cross checks facts rather than relying solely on arguably – undiluted bunkum, attributed to deceased individuals, none of whom actually attended the said meeting.

Dr Salaam role in developing the nuclear bomb has been well documented by Dr Pervaiz Hoodbhoy and Dr A H Nayyar, particularly, his advice to review unclassified documents from the Manhattan project by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), and that he assigned one of his prized students Dr Riazuddin as the lead theoretical physicist for the bomb project. – Someone who Dr Hoodbhoy calls “the real father of Pakistan’s bomb”. In my own discussions with a former Bhutto cabinet member as well as with the family of Dr Munir Ahmed Khan then chairman PAEC, it was confirmed that Prof. Salaam who remained as Science Advisor to the President till 1974, although not actively involved in the bomb project, maintained his role as advisor to the government, quietly helping out PAEC. Apparently, one causality of the said meeting though, was Dr Ishrat Usmani, then Chairman of PAEC, who was viewed by Mr Bhutto as – someone who errs on the side of caution.

In Prof. Salaam’s biography Cosmic Anger, the author Gordon Fraser writes –“when Salaam returned to teach physics at Government College in Lahore in 1952, he started an evening course in modern quantum theory, such advanced was the teaching that in the end only two students remained, Riazuddin and his twin brother Fiazuddin”. Dr Riazuddin subsequently took over Salaams’ teaching after he left Lahore. But later he himself went to Imperial College to complete his PhD under Prof Salaam’s supervision and returned to form the theoretical physics group at Islamabad’s new university. Had Prof. Salaam opposed the bomb project as alleged, Dr Riazuddin would never have agreed to work on it.

Even before he won the Nobel Prize, there were offers he rebuffed from the UK government to accept British Citizenship, – and unlike many of our elites, only kept his green passport. In 1989 Prof. Salaam was awarded the highest award for a non UK citizen Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). He was the first non-British scientist to receive such an award, though he could not use the title “Sir” because he chosen not to accept a dual British nationality. This belies the claim that he said that he would “never to step foot in Pakistan”, as then he would have accepted the British Citizenship to become Sir Abdul Salaam. In respect to his wishes Prof Salam was buried in Pakistan.

As Scientific Advisor the President of Pakistan Prof. Salaam promoted the country’s cause. In 1950 Prof. Salaam convinced the UN and International Atomic Energy Agency to set up an International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) reminding them of the role of theoretical physicist in the emergence of man’s use of nuclear weapons – Bohr, Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer and Teller. Prof. Salaam encouraged the governments of Turkey and Pakistan to put forward Ankara and Lahore as possible locations for the new center. For logistical reasons eventually Trieste was selected. Although he had resigned as Scientific Advisor to the President of Pakistan in 1974 after Ahmadis were declared as non-Muslim by Pakistan’s parliament, Prof Salaam continued to be associated with physics in the country, through the Nathiagali summer schools. These started in 1976 under the aegis of the PAEC, titled “Physics and Contemporary needs” whereby he helped bring distinguished physicists to the country.

Unfortunately, Pakistan never valued its most prominent scientist. Prof Salaam was a great believer in the UN and given his role with ICTP and as a Noble Laureate he carried considerable gravitas. In 1987 when the post of UNESCO Director General was available Prof Salaam was interested and had the backing of over thirty countries even UK that had left the organisation indicated that it would return to UNESCO if Salaam were to be elected as DG. Unfortunately due to his religious beliefs President Zia ul Haq refused to nominate him, and instead opted for a retired General Yacoub Khan who did not have the same exposure to Science and Education. Needless to say the Spanish candidate Zaragoza was elected and Pakistan passed on an opportunity to elect one of its citizens as head of a UN body.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to name the Physics Center after Prof. Salaam although belated is a courageous step in building a pluralistic society that must be applauded. Prof. Salaam’s detractors should stop obfuscating history, and instead learn from the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s words.

 When you left even the stones were burnt

The defenseless would have no weapons

My memory is again standing in the way of your history.