Friday, January 13, 2017

Recollections of Abdus Salam: the first Muslim Nobel Laureate

In about 1992 my late wife Susan and I wrote to Professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate (1979, for physics) about BODHI, the NGOs Susan and I had co-founded in 1989, and which today still work with minorities facing discrimination and poverty in South Asia. To our great delight he replied, encouraging us to continue, and inviting us to visit the Third World Academy of Sciences, (now the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics) which he had founded and was then directing, in Trieste, Italy, after his attempts to establish this in Pakistan were thwarted.

He also sent us a manuscript, not a formally published book, which I remember as insightful, with virtually nothing to do with physics. We never did get to meet him (he unfortunately died in 1996, aged 70, still in exile) but I was delighted to read, in December 2016, that the country of his birth is to rename a university centre in his honour. For many years Salam had been overlooked in Pakistan, despite his Nobel prize, because he was a member of a persecuted minority sect, the Ahmadis. Although the Ahmadis see themselves as Muslims,
the Pakistani constitution was amended in 1974 to declare them as non-Muslim. One result of this is that if Ahmadis refer to their places of worship as mosques or publicly quote from the Koran they can be sent to prison in Pakistan for up to three years.

Prof Salam endured many indignities Pakistani Prime Minister Ziaul Haq refused to endorse Salam's candidature as a Director General of UNESCO. In 1988, Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto reportedly made him wait for two days in a hotel before meeting him.

Return to the Punjab 

Exiled in life, Prof Salam’s remains were returned to Pakistan after his death, where he was buried in the town of Rabwah, on the Chenab, one of the five major Punjabi rivers, and a major Ahmadi centre. But, some time after, his gravestone was defaced to removed the word “Muslim” from an inscription that had called him “the first Muslim Nobel Laureate for his work in physics”.

Pain of Pakistan's outcast Ahmadis (BBC)

I regret not visiting Trieste, but it was a long way from Australia and money and time were scarce.

I do remember that Prof Salam gently chided BODHI for a name he thought sounded too Indian. But, while the acronym BODHI is a Sanskrit word (related to the wish to help all), our proper name is English, a bit long winded: "Benevolent Organisation
for Development, Health and Insight".

I have no doubt that Prof Salam was sympathetic to BODHI's work due to his personal experience of discrimination and poverty. He went to a simple school, said to have little furniture. Discrimination against the Ahmadis not only occurs in Pakistan, but in the UK, and according to Human Rights Watch, also in Saudi Arabia
  and Indonesia (at least).

There are many divisions within all the great faiths, including Islam. As ecological and energy constraints tighten, tolerance also appears in apparent decline. I take heart from Pakistan's belated acknowledgement of one of their greatest scientists. Even if Prof Salam's greatest hopes were unfulfilled, he was still tremendously successful. I am grateful for his act of kindness in replying to us a quarter of a century ago, and wish I could let him know that he has again given me hope.