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Fighting the powers that be

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist and teacher, has seen just about everything.

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.