From ‘tapping the energy of djinns’ to an ‘Al Qaeda’ mindset.

Survival of the fittest
Irfan Husain
Wednesday, 14 Oct, 2009
Dr Abdul Salam, Pakistani theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate in Physics. — File photo
Last night I saw the first in a new BBC series of nature programmes called Life. Narrated by David Attenborough, the TV show was a dazzling example of photography and painstaking research. We were treated to the sight of a dozen killer whales hunting seals in the Arctic; a mother octopus who starves to death while tending her eggs; and sundry other animals, birds and fish exhibiting the most extraordinary behaviour in their struggle to survive.

This endless struggle to survive and procreate was also the subject of a recent series about Charles Darwin. Written and presented by Richard Dawkins, the biologist and campaigner for Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was a brilliant exposition of our emergence from the primeval slime millions of years ago.

And finally, I watched hypnotised as a programme on the Hubble telescope filled our TV screen with stunning images of distant stars, nebulae and galaxies. Captured by the orbiting telescope, objects whose light has been travelling for thousands of years appeared in dazzling colours and forms.

All three TV programmes served as reminders of man’s insignificance when measured on the universal scale of time and distance. Although the universe was created around 14 billion years ago, it is still expanding. Life emerged hundreds of millions ago on our planet, and is still evolving.

Cern, the European nuclear research centre on the border of France and Switzerland, is currently trying to recreate the conditions that followed within milliseconds of the Big Bang that created the universe. Here, the Large Hadron Collider is man’s most ambitious to investigate the very origins of the physical universe, as well as other mysteries of quantum physics.

Given the cutting edge nature of the research at Cern, it was disconcerting to learn that a scientist had been arrested on the charges of corresponding with AQIM, the North African arm of Al Qaeda. Of Algerian origin, Adlene Hicheur was corresponding with the terrorist group by email, and apparently had been trying to identify possible targets.

Even though his research did not equip him to cause any serious damage, Hicheur, if found guilty, is clearly on the same ideological wavelength as Osama bin Laden. Somehow, I have naively assumed that scientists are above the siren call of religious extremism. After all, how can you explore the earliest moments of the creation of the universe, and simultaneously accept the literalist interpretation of the event given by many religious texts, and blindly accepted by extremists?

Pervez Hoodbhoy, in his eminently lucid book Muslims and Science, gave examples of Pakistani nuclear scientists who engaged in research into the supernatural. In a conference on miracles in Islam organised in Islamabad under Zia, one of our scientists presented a paper on the possibility of tapping the energy of djinns to meet our power requirements. Another worked out how to calculate the degree of hypocrisy in society.

Now I do not question anybody’s right to follow his own line of research, no matter how eccentric. However, if scientists are conducting research at institutions funded by taxpayers, we do have the right to expect some more meaningful output. And when retired nuclear scientists are found to be close to Al Qaeda, as at least two from our scientific establishment were after 9/11, eyebrows will be raised around the world.

As we have learned to our cost, many doors have been shut to Muslims after 9/11. Visas, never easy to obtain before that world-changing event, are harder to come by than ever before. Log on to visa requirements for most Western (and many Muslim) states, and you will see that applicants from over two dozen Muslim countries now have their applications processed through sundry databases in the countries they wish to visit. All this causes endless delays.

Many Western universities no longer admit Muslim students to nuclear or biological research centres. They have seen post-graduate students from their departments returning home and getting involved in weapons research and development. And after A.Q. Khan’s alleged theft of plans for uranium enrichment equipment from his Dutch laboratory, how many Muslim scientists would get jobs at similar nuclear establishments?

Understandably, many Muslims who do not subscribe to extremist philosophy feel bitter at being rejected because of the actions of a handful. But after Hicheur’s arrest, how can you blame Westerners for being suspicious? After all, he was a French national who had studied at some of the finest institutions in Britain and the United States. So if he could go over to Al Qaeda and seriously contemplate terrorist attacks, what’s to stop other Muslims from following the same path?

The danger is that through the misguided actions of Hicheur and a few scientists like him, the Muslim world will find itself cut off from the mainstream of scientific research. Already, we are trailing far behind the rest of the world in the sciences, as we are in so much else. For decades, virtually no original research has been conducted in Muslim nations. And when we miraculously produce a Nobel-prize winner like Dr Abdus Salam, we drive him away by our bigotry.

Our excuse for our backwardness in the sciences is the poverty that is endemic in so many Muslim countries. But this is not true for several oil-rich states. The reality is that there is not a single world-class research institution in any Islamic country. Instead of squabbling over the fine points of dogma, if we could devote some of our energy to acquiring knowledge, we would all be far better off today.

I have no doubt that Hichuer is a hero to many Muslims who remain mired in a permanent sense of paranoia and past grievances, real and imagined. When I mentioned A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities in a recent article, I was attacked by several readers for not appreciating his efforts to make Pakistan a nuclear power. And now, as the Kerry-Lugar Bill continues to be criticised, in part because it seeks to curb future proliferation, I am sure many Pakistanis will fulminate against the injustice of the American legislation. But the harsh reality is that life is unfair; and as Darwin has outlined in his theory of evolution, only the fittest survive and prosper.