In Islamic Pakistan, physicist and global citizen Pervez Hoodbhoy takes advantage of a January media spotlight
US physicists’ MIT-educated colleague gently but bluntly—and dauntlessly—advocates science, evidence, and reason in politics and culture.
Steven T. Corneliussen
11 février 2016
For nuclear physicist and public intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy in terror-plagued Pakistan, standing up for scientific rationality presents challenges unencountered by comparable figures in the West. He never goes long without media coverage internationally, but thanks in part to his recent speaking tour in India—amid perpetually simmering Pakistani–Indian relations—he drew a lot of coverage in early 2016. Hoodbhoy used the spotlight to continue asserting his cause: the Enlightenment spirit.
That’s even though there’s plenty to daunt him.
In a 2001 Washington Post commentary, just after the terror attacks of 9/11, Hoodbhoy concluded by quoting the Declaration of Independence: “We have but one choice: the path of secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason. This alone offers the hope of providing everybody on this globe with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That would be easy for an American to write, but Hoodbhoy’s commentary also included this lament about his country’s physics Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam:
He was a remarkable man, terribly in love with his country and his religion. And yet he died deeply unhappy, scorned by Pakistan, declared a non-Muslim by an act of the Pakistani parliament in 1974. Today the Ahmadi sect, to which Salam belonged, is considered heretical and harshly persecuted. (My next-door neighbor, an Ahmadi physicist, was shot in the neck and heart and died in my car as I drove him to the hospital seven years ago. His only fault was to have been born into the wrong sect.)
Years later, in a 2015 letter on the US Public Library of Science website, Hoodbhoy lamented the murder of his friend Sabeen Mahmood, a Pakistani human-rights activist: “Two armed men on a motorcycle pulled up next to her car,” he wrote, “and pumped Sabeen and her mother full of bullets.” He continued:
The Islamist agenda is propagated wholesale through our textbooks, the media, and in our schools.... So, although Sabeen reached out to a few tens of thousands the other side reaches out to many tens of millions. And they do not tolerate even small challenges and attack us viciously. So what do we do?
A thousand curses on those who stilled this brave young woman. Her funeral is in a few hours, and I have too many tears in my eyes to write more.
“So what do we do?” One thing Hoodbhoy had already done, with the help of Mahmood, was establish the online Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education (EACPE) “to foster the use of science and reason to understand nature and society” and to promote human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and cultural and religious diversity.
It’s an Enlightenment polymath’s site. On a webpage listing online tutorial videos, the section “Teach yourself special relativity by Pervez Hoodbhoy” invites “students to learn this beautiful subject with zero or minimal assistance.” Another video title, in the category “Pakistan’s emerging problems,” asks “What are they teaching non-Muslim students in Pakistan?” The blurb says, “Violating the constitution, Pakistan’s education system forces non-Muslim students to learn Islamic teachings in their courses.”
In the letter lamenting Mahmood’s murder, Hoodbhoy asserted that “the evil of the Islamist narrative needs a counter-narrative.” In January he told Asian Age—which publishes editions in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and London—that although “Pakistan was made in the name of Islam, the experience of the last 70 years has shown that religion is not a sufficient reason for the existence of a nation and that there is more to a nation than just religion. Now, Pakistan has to reimagine itself as a secular entity.”
He also said, “If you are a Pakistani child then you will be told that all of science has been created by Islamic scholars. You see this attempt in India too. Of (Narendra) Modi saying that the trunk of Lord Ganesh is proof that Hindus knew about plastic surgery and jumbo jets flying between planets. All these are not based on facts but myths. It is good to be proud of one’s culture and history but not at the expense of truth.”
Also in January, Scroll.in published Hoodbhoy’s thoughts on his recent visit to India for the Hyderabad Literary Festival—what he calls his “11-day 12-lecture marathon at Indian universities, colleges, and various public places.” Scroll.in claims to focus on “the most important political and cultural stories that are shaping contemporary India.” Hoodbhoy’s piece had first appeared in Dawn, one of Pakistan’s major English-language dailies. He contrasted Pakistan with India and its “openness to the world of ideas.” But he criticized India too, charging that legitimate “cultural pride over path-breaking achievements of ancient Hindu scholars is being seamlessly mixed with pseudoscience” there.
Pseudoscience is a perennial Hoodbhoy theme. A January Times of India piece reported his comments about antiscience shenanigans at the Indian Science Congress. Scroll.in republished Hoodbhoy’s October Dawn commentary that began by reporting that the workshop “Jinns and Black Magic”—jinns meaning genies—had taken place at a large Pakistani university. In the main auditorium there, a speaker—“reputedly an expert on demonic possessions and evil spirits”—had been introduced as a “spiritual cardiologist” to an audience so packed that no standing room remained. With some mild sarcasm, Hoodbhoy reported multiple additional examples of antiscientific ludicrousness in warning that the “newly launched jinn invasion of campuses means that Pakistan’s cultural and intellectual decline will accelerate.”
The commentary drew mostly supportive online comments, but more than a few resembled this sampling:
* “The author’s argument rests on the pre-supposed fact that all activities relating to the spiritual and metaphysical are dogma...[but] they are part of reality. Be it African voodoo, native American rituals or practicing higher modes of spiritual consciousness in major world religions including Islam, all are an aspect of reality and very much internally ‘rational.’”
* “As a scientist Mr. Hoodbhoy should have proven through an experiment that Jinns don’t exist.”
* “The fact is that black magic exists.”
* “The Jinn world is a natural phenomenon, part of the structure of the universe, though not (consistently) observable.”
* “Can you please make me understand why should we study and promote science? In short, what’s the purpose?”
Some of the January coverage engaged Hoodbhoy as an observer of the geopolitics of nuclear weaponry. For that he has a stature seen, for example, in his International New York Times op-ed last April under the headline “Pakistan, the Saudis’ indispensable nuclear partner.” The Hindu—a daily newspaper since the 19th century, printed today in 17 cities—interviewed him about Pakistan’s incorporation of tactical nuclear weapons as an element in military planning. He cautioned about the potential for unintended escalation. The Statesman, also dating from the 19th century, reported on Hoodbhoy’s nuclear weapons views in a terrorism era. The New Indian Express interviewed him, probing his outlook as a member of the permanent monitoring panel on terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists and a member of the United Nations secretary general’s advisory board on disarmament.
In covering his Mumbai talk “Nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan,” the Indian opinion site DailyO quoted him: “There are rational actors on both sides. Everybody now understands that if there is a serious war, it will escalate out of control. Once the first nuclear weapon is used, the second is going to be used. When the second is used, the third will be. Well-meaning people who have created nuclear weapons, thinking that they would act as a deterrent to war, have no idea of the horrors they have unleashed.” The article closed with another global citizen Hoodbhoy observation about the overall narrative: “Whenever I talk to young people, I emphasise that our nationalities and our religions and our racial origins are accidental. All these are to be treated in a detached way. We didn’t choose them.”
But historical origins are another matter to Hoodbhoy, who a quarter century ago published Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. His August 2007 Physics Today commentary “Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement” had this subhead: “Internal causes led to the decline of Islam’s scientific greatness long before the era of mercantile imperialism. To contribute once again, Muslims must be introspective and ask what went wrong.” A January New Indian Express piece joined other coverage in reporting about Hoodbhoy’s history-of-science perspective:
He pointed out that Muslims were global leaders in Science till 10th century AD at a time when Europe was in darkness.
Referring to 8th century Mutazila school of thought, which flourished in cities of Basra and Baghdad, Hoodbhoy said that the reason why science flourished among Muslims for nearly five centuries was because of their tolerance of ideas and people of different faiths and backgrounds. He said there is a need to replace rote memory with critical thinking among students. “Science is not a set of facts but a method of knowing,” he said. According to him, Science should remain above religion and ideologies.
So just how daunted is Hoodbhoy about standing so publicly for scientific rationality? His sarcastic jinn essay in Dawn prompted an interview by the Hindu. One question was, “Being someone who speaks out against pseudo-science, have you faced any problems since you are so vocal about your thoughts?” He answered:
I retired after teaching at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for more than 42 years, and joined another university in Lahore. I was dismissed because the people running the place found my views on religion, science and political matters not acceptable. I often write in newspapers and am frequently seen on television, so I am in that sense a very public person. Anyone who puts himself in opposition, not just to the Pakistani State, but goes against the grain of society, has to face the consequences. I am fortunate that so far I am here.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.