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Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist and teacher, has seen just about everything.
Photo caption: A man stands, identifying he has completed an exam to become a religious scholar, at the Jamia Binoria Al-Alamia Seminary Islamic Study School in Karachi, July 18, 2009. Pervez Hoodbhoy has taken on, among many things over years, religious extremism in Pakistan's education system. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan and NEW DELHI, India — From his high school days, when Benazir Bhutto made her chauffeur run his bicycle off the road with her Mercedes Benz, nuclear scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy has taken on Pakistan’s feudal establishment.
In other words, he's been fighting corruption, ignorance, political persecution and religious bigotry, even as he’s battled to remake Pakistan’s archaic educational system.
Now, at almost 60, the respected nuclear physicist has a crusader’s reformist zeal and a trademark acerbic wit. In December when accused in an article of being a minion of “Western embassies and Western-financed NGOs,” and among those who “serve the new U.S.-Zionist overlords,” Hoodbhoy gave this response: “I ought to be thrilled. Now that I am a certified foreign-funded agent-orientalist-NGO-operator who ‘manages U.S.-Zionist interests,’ a nice fat check must surely be in the mail.”
When I met him in Islamabad in 2006 in the course of reporting on the state of Pakistan’s higher education system, he spoke in a moderate tone, backed with logic and occasionally a bit of sarcasm.
He would also, when you least expected it, say something that left both of us collapsing with laughter. This was usually when skewering the absurdities of religious extremism and crude levels of corruption in Pakistan that to me were very familiar, as they closely mirrored the same things in India. In Pakistani education circles, this gives him something of the air of Peter Sellers in "Doctor Strangelove": the last sane man in a world gone mad.
Consider some of the battles he’s fought over the years.
When, in 1979, he returned from the U.S. — during which he completed, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), two bachelor’s degrees in four years and a PhD in nuclear physics in three — the Vietnam protest movement inspired him to fight for a new kind of Pakistan.
The polar opposite of the country’s most famous nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan — considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program who has also been accused of selling nuclear technology to North Korea — Hoodbhoy returned from MIT a committed pacifist, moved by the profound regrets expressed by his former teachers, the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project.
Upon his return to Pakistan, Hoodbhoy rejoined the Quaid-i-Azam University as a physics professor just in time to witness Pakistani army’s general Zia-ul-Haq grab power after hanging Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. As the military dictatorship cracked down on anyone saying anything pro-democracy, anti-military, anti-American or that appeared left-wing, Hoodbhoy and some colleagues promptly produced protest literature from the underground.
Within two years, in 1981, three of Hoodbhoy’s university colleagues were arrested and tortured for allegedly being “subversive of the state.” Hoodbhoy himself had left some days before the arrests for a research visit to the University of Washington in Seattle. Now his friends told him to stay away. “I couldn’t return because things were too hot,” he said. It was two years before he could return, immediately after which he visited his colleagues held in various jails. He calls that period the worst in Pakistan’s history.
Upon his return he decided to challenge the regime openly.