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Nobel laureates of the Islamic world


Muslims, who constitute 21 percent of the world’s population of around 6.83 billion, have produced only nine Nobel laureates. Four were from Egypt and one each from Palestine, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and Bangladesh. Three of them—the late Prof Abdus Salam of Pakistan, Iran’s Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh—were victims of religious and political persecution, which reflected not only the intellectual paralysis but also the repressive mindset that dominates the Islamic world. (The other two were Yasser Arafat and Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk.)
Abdus Salam shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for physics with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg “for his contribution to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including the prediction of the weak neutral current.” Scientists believe that his achievement of unifying two basic forces of nature has had an enormous impact upon the development of physics, and “is deeper and more profound than the works of most other Nobel Prize winners” of the 20th century. His prediction of the “Higgs particle” is probably the foremost priority in modern physics and its discovery will be fundamental in comprehending the early stages of the universe. The debt that modern science owes Abdus Salam is also acknowledged by Stephen Hawkins in his book A Brief History of Time. 
As a tribute to Pakistan, Professor Salam was addressed in Urdu at the Nobel Banquet on Dec 10, 1979. He replied that Pakistan was “deeply indebted” for the unprecedented gesture, and added: “The creation of physics is the shared heritage of all mankind. East and West, North and South have all participated in it. In the Holy Book of Islam, Allah says: ‘Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection; return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure? Then turn thy gaze again and again. Thy gaze comes back to thee dazzled aweary.’ This, in effect, is the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze.”
Yet Abdus Salam was never honoured in his own country because, as an Ahmadi, he became a non-Muslim under the Second Amendment of the 1973 Constitution. He died on Nov 21, 1996, in Oxford and, in accordance with his last wish, was buried in Pakistan. There was no official mourning, no recognition of the laurels he had won for his country and no representative of the government attended his funeral. The inscription on his tombstone initially read: “The first Muslim Nobel Laureate” but the word “Muslim” was effaced by the authorities, turning the inscription into the nonsensical “First Nobel Laureate.” 
Shirin Ebadi, the Hamadan-born lawyer, rose to prominence in 1975 as the first woman to preside over an Iranian legislative court. However, her glory was short-lived. Clerics, after the 1979 revolution, prohibited women from becoming judges and Ebadi was demoted to a secretarial position. 
If “a talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent,” as Goethe believed, then Shirin Ebadi lived up to this dictum through the tumultuous years in post-revolution Iran. She wrote extensively in defence of human rights and in her book, Iran Awakening, exposed the distortion of religious tenets by the clerics. “In the last 23 years, since the day I was stripped from my judgeship to the years of doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work.”
Macaulay believed that the commands of law have their roots in the needs of men but exist in vain for those who do not have the courage to fight for these rights, and it was in this spirit that Ebadi defended the victims of state oppression in the law courts of Iran. She incurred the wrath of the clerical establishment when she agreed to defend Baha’is arrested in May 2008. An article published by the official news agency, IRNA, viciously attacked her alleged links to the Baha’i sect and accused her of defending homosexuals, appearing without a headscarf abroad and questioning Islamic punishments. Death threats followed and became so menacing that she was compelled to flee abroad in July 2009.
Despite Ebadi’s courageous defence of human rights, a perception lingers that the decision to confer the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize on her was politically motivated, just as it was in the selection of Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev for the award. It was argued this was contrary to the will of Alfred Nobel that the prize be given “to the person who had done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies.” 
The third Muslim Nobel laureate to be victimised by his own country is Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh. However, it was not religious bigotry but his iconic international stature and domestic popularity that rankled with the authorities in Dhaka. 
In 1976, Yunus initiated a modest project to provide loans without collateral to the poorest for starting small enterprises of their own. This proved a raging success and on October 1, 1983, the project began full-fledged banking operations and was renamed Grameen Bank. There has been no looking back and Grameen became the world’s biggest micro-lender with an estimated 8.29 million borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women. The concept has been replicated in 58 countries and, according to a recent New York Times article by David Bornstein, Grameen has become “the flagship enterprise in an industry that in 2009 served 128 million of the world’s poorest families.” 
In 2006, when Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, there were tumultuous celebrations in the cities, villages and hamlets of Bangladesh. The following year he briefly entered politics and launched the Nagorik Shakti (Citizen’s Power) party. A vicious propaganda broadside was unleashed against him because politicians feared his enormous popularity. He was initially accused of malfeasance on a 1996 Norwegian loan although the government in Oslo had confirmed that there was no evidence that the funds were misused. 
In December 2010, the Bangladeshi government alleged that Yunus was treating Grameen as his personal property and was “sucking blood from the poor.” A letter was circulated containing a litany of unsubstantiated accusations against him, including the absurd claim that it was the government, and not Yunus, that had founded the Grameen Bank.
The axe fell last month and Yunus was dismissed on the pretext that, at 70, he was way past the mandatory retirement age. Within days the decision was validated by the Bangladesh High Court and an appeal is under submission to the Supreme Court.
History is, in essence, the story of the ascent of man. In this vast empire of ideas and advancement, the Islamic world has been left far behind. It has only itself to blame. In the Middle Ages, Europe persecuted men of science and learning but later made amends. On May 9, 1983, Pope John Paul II regretted the persecution of men such as Galileo, stating “It is through research that men attain to truth.” There has been no such realisation among Muslim countries, as is evident from the way they have treated some of their Nobel laureates.
By S Iftikhar Murshed, The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed :

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