A Humanist In Islamabad


For three decades Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of Physics at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, has been promoting science and humanism in Pakistan. His was one of the earliest voices to sound the alarm on the perils of developing nuclear weapons, and on the danger posed by the country’s deepening religious intolerance — issues that have gone on to damage the country’s reputation. His respected scientific work has been published widely, but in 2001 when the Pakistani Government wanted to present him with a national award, Hoodbhoy refused it, saying that Pakistan’s misuse of such awards had eroded their own credibility. Recently I spoke to Professor Hoodbhoy about science, Islam and the challenges facing Pakistan.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have brought it notoriety worldwide. You’ve been a vocal critic of nuclear weapons now for two decades. What is the perception of nuclear weapons inside Pakistan?

Nuclear weapons have become a symbol of defiance for Pakistanis for two reasons. One, the bomb has been associated with Islam as a means of increasing its glory. And the second reason is that it is associated with Pakistan in a nationalistic way which is … no different to India, or perhaps what it was like in the United States when it first developed nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a symbol of national pride in all countries. At the time of the nuclear tests religious parties took out cardboard replicas of the bomb, paraded them on the street with placards saying "Islamic bomb" and verses of the Koran.

It appears that kind of jingoism is pervasive in Pakistan.

Well it’s not just in Pakistan, you find in every part of the world humanistic principles are second priority. Even if they are admitted as theoretically good, nationalism and "my country right or wrong" often dominates … to the extent that the US — when they talk about casualties in Afghanistan or Iraq — they say 4000 American lives have been lost. How often do you see American newspapers mentioning 500,000 Iraqis have been killed? So you see this attachment to one’s own — this "us and them" — is very pervasive and it’s very hard to fight, but it must be fought.

So how can people fight it?

In places [blind nationalism and militarism]has been successfully fought [such as with]the anti-war movement [against the Iraq war]in the US and Europe. Let’s go even further back to the anti-Vietnam war movement. That was an expression of idealism and humanism. The feeling hasn’t disappeared [but]it has to be cultivated and increased.

Speaking of anti-war movements, there is a great deal of opposition in Pakistan to the war its army is fighting against the Taliban under intense US pressure. How does it manifest itself in the politics and public debate on the war?

There has been a reluctance to condemn the Taliban [and]al Qaeda for all the atrocities that have been committed [in Pakistan and abroad]and justifications instead have been sought [such as]"who else is opposing the Americans? The US is an imperial power and somebody has to fight them". You see this confusion even among people in the Left in Muslim countries and in fact even among Hindus in India who belong to the Left who say someone has to oppose the US. So the fact that the US has been such a dreadful imperial power has confused people and made them look away from the fact that the Taliban are barbaric beyond any kind of calculation.

And all the people they are killing are ordinary Muslim Pakistanis.

Absolutely — ordinary Muslim Pakistanis. And so now I think perhaps the tide is beginning to turn.

The geopolitics behind the Taliban are fairly well known now. US support for jihadis against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s was pivotal. But what do you think are the social factors behind the so-called "Talibanisation" in Pakistan?

There has been poverty in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan, and guns, for as long as anyone can remember. Then you have the history of the Americans coming in and launching their global jihad. But there’s one other thing — and that’s I think at the base of it all practically everywhere in the world — and that’s the fact that the world has moved much too fast for anyone’s comfort. The lives of our parents is totally different to our lives today and that is true practically everywhere. And then you look at the tribal areas [where the Taliban emerged]. Until 30-40 years ago they were living the lives of their fathers, their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers. No difference. And then comes something very important in the 1970s — migration, to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East where they get the opportunity to [do]very menial jobs. They come back with money and the technology it can buy, like pickup trucks, cell phones, and so forth. That starts changing the face of the region. Over time it changes the structure of society. Traditional lives have been disrupted. This is a change that is more cataclysmic than what you saw at the time of the industrial revolution in Europe.

Because of the rate of change?

Yes, the rate of change — just look at the impact that population growth has. Pakistan’s population at partition in 1947 was 28 million. Today it’s 170 million! In cities there is a totally different way of living. They are mega slums. What can grow in that? [Only] violence.

So really we have to go back before the current violence to partition?

Well yes, back to partition in terms of the religious intolerance that led to the creation of Pakistan — the notion that Hindus and Muslims could not live together, but that Muslims could live together. Well, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 [after mass oppression by the Pakistan Army]proved that wrong. Religion is always divided [and Islam]has been divided [from the very beginning].

Do you think part of the problem is a tendency to focus on symbols of Islam like beards or burqas and not intellectual principles that might foster unity?

Religion is inserted where it absolutely has no place. For example if you go to [the university medical]clinic here in Islamabad you’ll find big posters that say "cleanliness is half of religion". Well hang on, if that’s the case then why is this hospital so dirty? Or at the start of tree planting week they say it’s your Islamic duty to plant a tree. But the rate of deforestation [in Pakistan]is greater than most countries in the world!

Doesn’t that just mean we’ve been bad Muslims?

So, then it is said that Islam is good, Muslims are bad. There’s a mythologised version of the religion which has never been practised except in the early days of Islam. "If we go back to that early Islam everything will be ok." The problem with this is that it bypasses 1400 years of human progress.

In a country like Pakistan then how do you tackle this?

In my mind the only way for Pakistan to move forward is for it to become secular, which means that people have the right to worship whatever they like and by whatever means. But no one has the right to impose their version of Islam on all of us.

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