Fighting the powers that be

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.

That’s when he first tackled the so-called "Islamic Science" propagated by Zia who was trying to Islamize all institutions in Pakistan. “They [Zia’s regime] were doing bizarre things like changing how chemistry was taught,” Hoodbhoy said. “Instead of saying hydrogen and oxygen make water, you had to say when they are brought together then by the will of Allah they become water. Things like people having the temperature of hell and the speed with which hell was receding from heaven, receiving energy from Djinns and catching them to take their energy,” he explained.

All of this was propagated in schools and universities by people with science PhDs because it was the key to their success and promotions, Hoodbhoy says. “The more bizarre and outrageous and the more you flaunted your Islamic credentials the higher you rose."

The absurdity reached a peak in those years when Hoodbhoy debated nuclear engineer Bashiruddin Mahmood, a top director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, in newspaper columns and at various forums on the feasibility of trapping Djinns for energy. (Mahmood, according to Foreign Policy magazine, later admitted he met with Osama bin Laden in 2000-2001 to discuss how Al Qaeda could build a nuclear device. He is still under house arrest.)

For anyone who knows Hoodbhoy, the result of the debates in the late 1980s was predictable. “I called him [Mahmood] a lunatic,” said Hoodbhoy. “Nobody else was doing it.”

Hoodbhoy then set out to undo the damage Zia had done by writing a book, "Islam and Science, Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality," and producing two award winning television series on science, for which he won in 2003 the United Nations’ coveted Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science whose past winners include Bertrand Russell, David Attenborough and Margaret Mead.

But his victory over Zia’s Islamic Science wasn’t Hoodbhoy’s last fight.

Hoodbhoy suffered what he calls the second-worst period of his life when Benazir Bhutto — his old enemy from high school, as he calls her — came to power for the second time in 1993.

Hoodbhoy says he discovered in 1996 that Bhutto was trying to steal chunks of university land for herself by offering parcels for below market value to the university board, faculty, administrative staff and university workers. He talked openly about the immorality of this plan and made enemies of the university’s faculty and administration staff who stood to gain some land of their own.

Hoodbhoy and his colleague, physics professor Abdul Hameed Nayyar, managed to get a stay order on the sale of university land. But that only made matters worse. By then the Bhutto government was out, and though an interim caretaker government was in place, the power vacuum meant the bureaucracy was running the country. Hoodbhoy was put on Pakistan's "Exit Control List," which is usually reserved for drug lords and gun runners and not obstinate professors of physics.

The lingering rancor over the land issue is making Hoodbhoy’s current fight — raising academic standards — even more difficult.

A harsh critic of the Higher Education Commission formed by former president General Pervez Musharraf — which, among other things, decided to increase the number of PhD students by paying professors 5000 rupees ($60) for each PhD student they enrolled — Hoodbhoy is asking that that the entrance exam to enroll in a PhD program be made stricter. But Hoodbhoy says the professors that PhD students work under are threatened because they stand to lose 5,000 rupees a month per student they recruit. Although a new commission chairman supports Hoodbhoy’s plan, pressures are growing each day as students of his university are leading demonstrations not just in Islamabad but in all Pakistan’s universities.

Ever the multi-tasker, Hoodbhoy, now wearing a political analyst’s hat, has stirred up fierce emotions in Pakistan. In an article last November published in Pakistan and India he suggests that for India to defend itself from invaders from Pakistan and for the latter to win the fight against religious fanatics, a common defense — that is India helping the Pakistani army fight fanatics rather than India fighting the Pakistan army — is imperative for mutual survival.

His article began: “Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi says that Pakistan is ‘compiling hard evidence of India’s involvement’ in terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s public and its armed forces. If he and the interior minister are correct then we must conclude that the Indians are psychotics possessed with a death wish, or are perhaps plain stupid.”

According to Hoodbhoy, influential top ranking members of the Pakistan establishment — he refused to name them — who publicly have a hawkish anti-India stance were intrigued by his bold suggestion and privately told him that they agreed with it. But among the general newspaper readers and the public, while there has been some support, there has mostly been strong criticism and vilification of Hoodbhoy.

Obviously, this is nothing new for this pacifist nuclear scientist and teacher.