How Religious Extremism Shackles Pakistan: A Technological Example

Posted on July 12, 2012


Amid all the hoopla about the proof of the existence of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider, many of the great physicists whose work led us down this path seem to have been forgotten.  For example,  India leapt to the defense of their own “forgotten hero,” physicist Satyendranath Bose, who worked with Albert Einstein and for whom the “boson” itself is named (no relation to the equally ingenious acoustic engineer Amar Bose, so far as I can tell).  Then again, the Indian government – for all of the country’s ethnic strife and trouble – actually works to promote a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-lingual nation.

What a contrast with the government of Pakistan, which has virtually stamped out the honor, and very nearly the memory, of their only Nobel laureate, the physicist Abdus Salam, on account of his status as a religious minority.  Salam made huge contributions to Pakistan’s advancement, including work on the early stages of its nuclear program.  And yet, it is another man, A. Q. Khan, who bears the honorific of “Father of Pakistan’s Atomic Bomb,” and “Savior of Pakistan,” despite his arrest, trial and subsequent pardon for his unsanctioned proliferation activities involving such regimes as Iran, North Korea and Libya.  Khan is still a national hero today. But Salam?  Even his gravestone is defaced, the word “Muslim” stricken from it.

It is exactly this kind of intolerance that has contributed so greatly to Pakistan’s current status as a violent, unstable, dangerous state in which the government has little control and the military, only marginal control.  And while Pakistan jealously, practically maniacally, guards and nurtures its nuclear weapons program, it is also this very intolerance that makes it ever more likely that violent, dangerous, and unstable nonstate actors will eventually get their hands on a nuclear device.

There was a time, when Europe was languishing in mud and plague and the Dark Ages, and even centuries before European authorities actively rejected the scientific observations of such luminaries as Copernicus or Galileo, that the Islamic world flourished in the sciences: astronomy, mathematics, medicine, engineering and architecture.  The scientific mind is by nature a curious one, one that seeks logical explanations in the physical, observable world.  While a scientist can also be religious – witness Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking – he follows his observations, and the formation of theories will require independent, creative thought in an open mind.  Quite the opposite of what we find in Pakistan today; the frightening thing is, there was a time that Pakistan was comparatively secular, and the initial research on its nuclear program went on at the same time that Islamic hardliners were only beginning to gain support.  As the nuclear weapons program advanced, Pakistani society backslid.  And today, well – imagine if the kids from Lord of the Flies had been stranded with a few nukes.

And what brought down the Islamic Golden Age in the 13th century?  Mongol invasions were responsible for much physical destruction, but in the century before that, political changes and an internal shift away from independent thought had already begun.  Well.  No independent thought, no progress, and the stage is set for Thomas Hobbes’ assessment of life under the war of every man against every other:  “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Oh, and now it is nuclear-armed as well.

Originally published at The Color of Lila.