In the following interview from Der Spiegel, a Pakistani nuclear physicist gives a lucid account of the state of Islam in the 21st century. Notice that the interviewer is actually more Islam-friendly than his Muslim interlocutor.
Many thanks to Hermes for the translation:
Pakistani nuclear physicist: “Islamic Societies Have Collectively Failed”
There is a growing unrest in Islamic lands, and religious forces are gaining ground after the Arab revolution. The Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy sees a “collective failure” of Muslim societies. He clarified his thesis during an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Students frolic around Pervez Hoodbhoy. They wear tunics and doctoral caps. The young women have simply put the caps on their headscarves. They have just learned that they have passed the examinations. Now they want to take a group photo of themselves with Hoodbhoy, their famous teacher.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, 62, is a nuclear physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. He has been teaching here since the ‘70s. He has studied and taught at renowned universities in USA and Europe. He has received awards for his scientific activities, and he has engaged in political issues through physics.
For example, he criticized the nuclear upgrading of Pakistan, which is a nuclear power, and the advance of religion in scientific, cultural and political sectors. With this attitude he has earned himself enemies in Pakistan, a country which is very proud of having an atomic bomb. A private university in Lahore has already fired him, and he has been waiting for months to collect his salary for his work in Islamabad.
Despite this, he says he has never thought of leaving Pakistan. Hoodbhoy was born Muslim, in an Ishmaelite family. He is hated by many, but secretly admired by others, and he does not want to be silenced. “I say what I think. And I provide a solid basis for it,” he says in his office, which he still has in the university where he has yet to receive his salary. Pictures of Japan in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb hang on the walls, and books on physics and politics are piled upon his desk.
Read in the interview why Pervez Hoodbhoy takes such a critical stance towards religion, and what he sees for the future of Islamic societies:
Spiegel: Mr. Hoodbhoy, you regularly warn about the radicalization of Muslims. How exactly do you come to this position? Hoodbhoy: When I started teaching here at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad in the early ‘70s, there was only a single student in the entire campus wearing a burka. Today around 70 per cent of the women here are fully covered. Only 30 per cent go around normally. Spiegel: Do your students justify it? Or is that not an issue? Hoodbhoy: I ask them occasionally, and many of them say Islam requires it of them. Others say they wear a burka or hijab because most women here do. Others say they feel safer like that, because when they’re standing at the bus stop no one bothers them. Spiegel: So there’s no turning back to God or stricter interpretation of religion? Hoodbhoy: Yes there is. We are experiencing a huge cultural revolution in the Islamic world, not just in Pakistan, but in more or less every Islamic country. Pakistan is changing, Afghanistan has radicalized, Iran, Iraq, many countries in Africa and the Arabian world, Egypt, Algeria, now Mali. Sooner or later in Syria only veiled women will be seen. But let’s look at the Islamic communities in Europe or the USA — they are infected with the same virus. Why? I think people are noticing that they differ from others. A burka is essentially just a label to distance yourself from others. It says clearly: my identity is Islamic. This identity is closely linked to the feeling of being a victim of history. Deep down, Muslims feel that they have failed. This mix of sensitivities makes me afraid, because it leads to behavior that is very unhealthy. Spiegel: You view Muslim societies as having collectively failed. What do you mean by that? Hoodbhoy: There are around 1.5 billion Muslims in the entire world — but they cannot point to a substantial achievement in any field. Not in politics, not socially, not in the sciences or art or literature. The only thing they do with great devotion is fast and pray. But there are no efforts to improve conditions of life in Islamic societies. Unconsciously, people naturally feel this is a collective failure. Spiegel: Last time there was the so-called Arab Spring, where people — Muslims — fought for better living conditions.
Hoodbhoy: The Arab spring was just an answer to autocratic systems and despotism, that is, to the factors which allowed the Arab world to sink into darkness. But the protests were not aimed at demanding a cultural or scientific renaissance. That is why not many changes are to be expected. A real liberation will only happen when the political changes are followed by cultural ones, and also by a change of attitude. Arab Muslims must get rid of the false but widespread belief that science contains any kind of religious elements. This Insh’allah mentality, according to which Allah is responsible for everything, is the opposite of the scientific way of thinking. Apart from this, the Arab working ethic is a bad one. There are always stops in order to comply with religious duties. In order to remain competitive in the modern world, things like punctuality and compliance with rules dictated by men, and not by Allah, must be dramatically improved. Spiegel: Do you actually receive threats because of statements like this? Hoodbhoy: Not threats, but they make life difficult for me. I’ve just been sacked from the Lahore University of Management Sciences, where I taught physics. That’s a very progressive private university, but in this society there are limits to what may be said. Even here in Islamabad life isn’t easy for me. Because I am a tenured professor, they can’t sack me. But I’ve haven’t been paid for months. I’m just sticking to the facts: what significant invention or discovery have Muslims made in the last thousand years? Electricity? Electromagnetic waves? Antibiotics? The combustion engine? Computers? No, nothing, at least nothing that makes for a modern civilization. And it’s the same now. And according to the religious fanatics, that also doesn’t matter. Their way of thinking is still that of the 12th century. Spiegel: There are really progressive Muslims, such ones who are secular and appreciate the modern world. And the majority of them are also rather moderate from a religious point of view. You are being unfair to them now. Hoodbhoy: Of course there were attempts by part of Islamic societies to become more modern, in the middle of the 20th century. Pakistan was a very modern idea when it was created in 1947. Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, all these were societies which looked at education and progress as something good. (But) all this is over. And this has many reasons. Arab nationalism failed. The Palestinians were kept down. And the West pursued its interests independently of positive developments in Islamic countries, for example regarding oil. If things go wrong, people turn to God. Spiegel: You say that this is already enough to ignite a radicalization? Hoodbhoy: For many Muslims, one question has not been addressed: why has our grandeur faded away? And the answer given to them by mullahs is the following: “Because you are not good Muslims! Pray! Fast! Cover your women! Think again about the interpretation you give to the Quran!” There is no way forward, and we are experiencing the results. In Pakistan, radical Sunnis kill Shi’ites on a daily basis just because they are seen as unbelievers. Spiegel: And what do you see as the right path in order to stop these developments? Hoodbhoy: Societies must have their bloody experiences. This is the way in which Europe turned secular. Earlier there were constant battles between Catholics and Protestants, and people came to their senses only after bloodsheds took place long enough. I fear that we are having just these horrendous experiences. Spiegel: In spite of this, now we must deal with radicals. What is your opinion about talking with the Taliban? Hoodbhoy: Those who are not ready to talk, but stick to violence, must be eliminated. Let’s look at the Taliban in Pakistan: they have two demands, namely that Pakistan cuts its links with the USA, and that sharia be introduced as the only one applicable law. They want no streets, no schools, and no work. They know no compromises. Of course that one cannot talk with them. We saw this in 2009 in the valley of Swat: the more concessions the Pakistani government made, the more they moved forward. One must tell them clearly: we negotiate with you only if you put down your guns. And because they will not do this, we must fight them. If one talks with the Taliban, this must happen only from a position of strength. Spiegel: So would the government have the backing of the population if it were to fight the Taliban? Hoodbhoy: When the question was raised in 2009 whether the army should enter into war with Taliban in Swat Valley, there was intense opposition from part of the population. But in spite of this, the army marched. The situation in Swat Valley with the Taliban is today visibly better than before. I believe that many do not like the army, but they like extremists even less. I am convinced that military actions are possible. Spiegel: How strong is the level of radicalization inside the Pakistani army, which has at its disposal the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world? Hoodbhoy: Regarding its composition, the army cannot be anything other than the society to which its members belong. Pakistani society has arranged a place for the Islamic agenda, and this is also valid for the army. That is why the military is facing huge problems. There are officials who consider themselves as a part of the Pakistani army. And there are officials who see themselves as part of the army of Islam. The civil sector inside the army views this with concern, but they have no answers to this challenge.