Pakistan’s prime minister has risked enraging religious hardliners by ordering one of the country’s top universities to honour a Nobel prize-winning physicist from a minority sect whose members are banned from describing themselves as Muslims.
In an announcement that surprised many, Nawaz Sharif said he had given approval to rename the National Centre for Physics at the capital’s Quaid-e-Azam University as the “Professor Abdus Salam Centre for Physics”.
A fellowship programme to support five physicists a year to study abroad for their doctorates will also be named after Salam.
The recognition comes 20 years after the death of a scientist who won the Nobel prize in 1979 for his work in theoretical physics.
Despite the international esteem in which he was held – and his role in helping Pakistan develop nuclear weapons – governments in his homeland have not dared embrace a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
The sect, established in British India in 1889, is regarded as heretical by strict Muslims because Ahmadis believe the movement’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet. A central tenet of Islam is that Mohammad, the religion’s seventh-century founder, was the final prophet.
Because of the theological dispute, Ahmadis were declared to be non-Muslims in a 1974 constitutional amendment and further criminalised in 1984 when they were banned from “posing as Muslims”.
It means Ahmadis run the risk of imprisonment if they are caught calling their places of worship “mosques”, participating in the annual Eid animal sacrifice or even using common Islamic greetings.
Like those of many others buried in the town of Rabwah, a major centre for Ahmadis, Salam’s gravestone has been defaced so that the word Muslim is not visible.
In a recent reminder of the enduring passions surrounding the issue, the new chief of Pakistan’s army was falsely accused in the days before his appointment last month of having Ahmadi relatives.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist who has campaigned for 20 years for the facility at Quaid-e-Azam to be renamed after Salam, said Sharif’s action was a “tremendous development” that came after the prime minister saw him talking about the issue on a television show. Later, Sharif’s office urged Hoodbhoy to make a formal request to the government for Salam to be honoured.
“This shows that the most persecuted community in Pakistan is getting some kind of recognition,” he said. “Nawaz Sharif has shown courage and an astonishing degree of enlightenment.”
He added that the former leaders Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, both avowed liberals, had never risked praising an Ahmadi.
During general elections in 2013, the opposition leader Imran Khan went out of his way to reassure voters that he had no intention of changing the laws that discriminate against Ahmadis.
Sharif however praised Salam as a “great Pakistani” in January this year. A month previously police in the prime minister’s political base of Lahore took down anti-Ahmadi posters in one of the city’s shopping markets.
Hasan Munir, deputy education director for the Amhadi community in Pakistan, said it was a “small but positive step in the right direction”.
“There is not even a single road or university that has been named after him, all because of pressure from the clergy,” he said.
Although there is a centre named after of Salam at Government College University Lahore, the name board has been taken down from public display.
Maulana Allah Wasaia, head of Tahaffuz-e-Khatm-e-Nubuwwat, an anti-Ahmadi group, accused the government of trying to “please its foreign masters”.
“If a matter has been constitutionally decided then the government should not make it part of larger debate,” he said. “We should recall that Dr Salam himself left Pakistan in protest after Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims. Naming a physics centre after a person who did not like Pakistan is strange and is a wrong message here.”