‘Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate’ Showcases The Tragedy Of Pakistan’s Unsung Hero
Netflix released the much-awaited documentary, Salam – The First ****** (Muslim) Nobel Laureate, showcasing the life of Pakistan and the Muslim world’s first Nobel Laureate and theoretical physicist Dr Abdus Salam (1926-1996). The documentary was co-produced by Pakistani American Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal and was directed by Indian American documentarian Anand Kamalakar.
The thought-provoking documentary narrates an emotive story of a scientific genius and explores his extraordinary life from its humble beginnings. Dr Abdus Salam born in an impoverished district of Jhang, Punjab in British India, was raised in a middle-class family and got his early education at a village school, following which he excelled his way through to the top college of his time, the Government College in Lahore.
Later on, he received a prestigious scholarship in physics at St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1949, which further supported his pre-doctoral research work in the field of modern physics. His pre-doctoral research opened the pathway towards winning a Nobel Prize for his research in the electroweak unification theory that later on contributed to the discovery of Higgs Boson particle.
The documentary in most part features not only the academic and scientific brilliance of Dr Salam, but also sheds light on the painful life of a national hero let down by the very nation that he cherished till his last breath.
After completing his doctorate, Dr Salam returned to teach in Pakistan and became head of Punjab University’s Mathematics Department, where he was not valued for his academic achievements and instead was offered to perform to serve a position of a football coach which he quite disliked.
Following the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953, Dr Salam was forced to permanently leave Pakistan. In his own words, it had become increasingly unbearable for him to continue his research work in Pakistan. The scientist is quoted as saying, “It became quite clear to me that either I leave my country or leave physics and with great anguish, I chose to leave my country.”
In later years, Dr Salam would return to serve as a science advisor to the government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto from 1971 to 1974. He served as one of the key figures to have created the blueprint of Pakistan’s nuclear energy program; something never publicly recognised by the government of Pakistan.
Bhutto, a champion of Islamic socialism and democracy, under pressure from the religious right declared the Ahmadiyya as non-Muslims (heretics). This terrible blow devastated Dr Salam, who immediately resigned from his position as the scientific advisor and left the country. For a grief-stricken Salam, as he recalled the very day he left his motherland, he said, “The day that you declared me a Non-Muslim and since Pakistan was created for Muslims, you made me a second class citizen.”
Later on, the Islamist dictator, Zia Ul Haq, went a little further and passed stricter anti-Ahmadiyya law known as Ordinance XX to appease the hardliners. Ahmadiyya Muslims or derogatorily referred to as ‘Qadiani’ by the conservatives, with a stroke of a pen were turned into the most persecuted religious minority in the country.
Attacks on Ahmaddiya mosques and worshippers remain all too frequent to this day. The US-funded ‘mujahideens’ (Islamist guerrillas) in the 1980s, originally recruited by the Pakistani intelligence agencies to combat the invading Soviets in Afghanistan but have now all but gone rogue, are wreaking havoc across communities of religious minorities including the Christians, Ismaili community and Hazara Shia minority. As per the British Pakistani leftist intellectual Tariq Ali, “What they did to Ahmaddiya was a fatal scratch, which is now turning into gangrene, and infecting the whole of Pakistani society and many people still don’t understand that.”
Later in life, Dr Salam mostly invested his time and energy into developing a world-class institute known as – Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics – in Trieste, Italy, to advance research and understanding of theoretical physics amongst emerging academics from the developing world. He’s remembered by his colleagues as a religious man of humility and wisdom, his own children remember him as a loving father with a complex relationship with his family due to his lifelong commitment towards science and research.
Dr Salam’s life tragedy is equivalent to the sad fate suffered by Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, also known as the ‘father of modern physics’, who was tried by the Catholic church for his research in heliocentrism, and was sentenced for ‘heresy’ in 1633 and kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.
Though never arrested or physically harmed by the state of Pakistan, Dr Salam endured a life of grief for leaving his homeland and was banished forever for even audaciously thinking of educating his people and disseminating the knowledge of science and mathematics that he had learned.
Dr Salam has deliberately been erased from our textbooks and his work was not celebrated and was mostly forgotten by the youth of a country he served so selflessly. The public animosity towards Ahmadiyyas remains at an all-time high; those who even utter support for religious freedom for the people of Ahmadiyya faith are immediately declared ‘Kafir’ (heretics) and threatened with the worst imaginable consequences.
There exists a sense of barbarity amongst my country folk who’ve been injected with the cancer of intolerance and who continue to ostracize one of their great minds just because of his religious beliefs. It’s a shame that we continue to support draconian laws like the Ordinance xxx, which constitutionally declares Ahmadiyya as ‘heretics’ and punishes them for practising their religion.
I wonder how our prime minister can make sense of pressing the issue of ‘Islamophobia’ at the United Nations when his own country discriminates and brutally oppresses religious minorities like the Ahmadiyyas for their beliefs. It was the 18th century ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and the subsequent separation of church and state, that enabled religious tolerance which cleared the path for the preponderance of the Western civilization.
Dr Salam’s scientific successes were only possible in the secular enclaves of the West; he was ruthlessly belittled by the Islamist zealots and the short-sightedness of his statesmen to appease the merchants of malice who continue to sow the seeds of bitterness and fanaticism for mere political opportunism.
The moral of Dr Salam’s story is a lesson that teaches us to empathise with those oppressed amongst us; it humanizes the image of those demonized, who are as much of humans as those who oppose them. Ahmaddiyas are capable of aspiring towards greatness and immense service to their country if only given the chance to do so instead of being vilified and persecuted as a minority and the graves of its greatest minds defaced for the words, ‘Pakistan’s first Muslim Nobel Laureate’.
Muhammad Salman Khan (Sal Khan) is a freelance journalist and LGBTQ+ activist from Pakistan currently based in the US. He tweets at @IamGreenGuru and can be reached through his email at [email protected]