Ghosts in the 'God particle'

Back in December, I highlighted a story about how scientists really don't like the terminology of "God particle" to describe a theoretical subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. But the battle seems to be lost and reporters know that "God particle" is so much sexier than Higgs boson. Last week physicists in Switzerland said they would soon prove the particle’s existence and we saw another round of stories using the terminology. But the Associated Press ran a fantastic story with a quality, if troubling, religion angle. The headline at the Washington Post was:

Pakistan shuns prize-winning physicist linked to ‘God particle’ because of religious beliefs

The story explains the situation immediately:

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate helped develop the theoretical framework that led to the apparent discovery of the subatomic “God particle” last week, yet his legacy has been largely scorned in his homeland because of his religious affiliation.

It’s a sign of the growing Islamic extremism in his country.

Adbus Salam, who died in 1996, was once hailed as a national hero for his pioneering work in physics and work that guided the early stages of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Now his name is even stricken from school textbooks because he was a member of the Ahmadi sect that has been persecuted by the government and targeted by Taliban militants, who view them as heretics.

The story explains that Pakistan's religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims, Christians and Hindus, have suffered as certain "hard-line" interpretations of Islam have gained ground. We're told that Pakistan is a majority Sunni country. We learn about Salam and his work. The article says that Higgs boson was "named after a British physicist." That's totally true but -- fun fact -- bosons are named after Hindu Indian scientist Satyendra Bose.

Salam was very influential in Pakisan during the 1960s and 1970s -- chief scientific adviser to the president, setting up the country's space agency and institute for nuclear science, assisting in the early stages of nuclear bomb-making, etc. But then Pakistan's parliament ruled that the 3 million Ahmadis in Pakistan were not to be considered Muslim by law. The story explains the basis and impact of the ruling here:

Ahmadis believe their spiritual leader, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was a prophet of God — a position rejected by the government in response to a mass movement led by Pakistan’s major Islamic parties. Islam considers Muhammad the last prophet and those who subsequently declared themselves prophets as heretics.

All Pakistani passport applicants must sign a section saying the Ahmadi faith’s founder was an “impostor” and his followers are “non-Muslims.” Ahmadis are prevented by law in Pakistan to “pose” as Muslims, declare their faith publicly, call their places of worship mosques or perform the Muslim call to prayer. They can be punished with prison and even death.

Salam resigned from his government posts and eventually moved to Europe to continue his work. We learn that Pakistan barely celebrated his Nobel. That the country doesn't mention him in many textbooks. By contrast, a traditional Muslim physicist who helped spread nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya is hailed as a hero. A university had to cancel a lecture from Salam because "Islamist student activists" threatened to break his legs. The story ends:

The president who honored Salam would later go on to intensify persecution of Ahmadis.

Salam was targeted even after his death. His body was returned to Pakistan in 1996 after he died in Oxford, England, and was buried under a gravestone that read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate,” but a local magistrate ordered the word “Muslim” to be erased, said Hoodbhoy.

We also are reminded about Taliban killing 80 people in attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore last year and that threats are ongoing.

You can see how the tombstone was desecrated in the above image from Wikipedia.


Please respect our Commenting Policy