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Pakistan and the Higgs Boson

12 July 2012

Have you heard about Pakistan’s contribution to last week’s discovery of the Higgs Boson? No, thought not. Remarkably, the reason you probably won’t have is because Pakistan doesn’t want you to.

Dr Abdus Salam, a theoretical physicist, carried out pioneering work in the 1960s to suggest the existence of a hypothetical particle after creating a grand unification theory for weak forces and electromagnetic fields. He won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his efforts, the only Pakistani to have ever received the honour.

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Yet, his name is largely airbrushed from textbooks in Pakistan and is rarely mentioned in public debate. The problem is that he belongs to the Ahmadi sect, a branch of Islam which is officially regarded as heretical by the Pakistani state and which is constitutionally discriminated against. Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslim or build mosques, and are frequently the victims of violent attack.

After Salam died and was buried in the Punjab his headstone recorded his legacy as: ‘the first Muslim Nobel Laureate’. The word ‘Muslim’ has since been forcibly scrubbed out.

A pioneering scientist celebrated by theoretical physicists, Salam is a source of shame and embarrassment to Pakistan. That clash, between open inquiry and endeavour on the one hand, and the strictures of religious fundamentalism on the other, is a metaphor perfectly capturing the struggle which now engulfs Pakistan.

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