The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By winning the Nobel prize, Malala joins Pakistan’s loneliest club

A book by Pakistani teen education advocate Malala Yousafzai on sale at a store in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Oct. 10. (Sohail Shahzad/EPA)

Malala Yousafzai needs little introduction. The 17-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, education advocate and survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt is her country's most famous teenager and has been the darling of the international community for more than two years now. Her triumph today — winning the Nobel Peace Prize alongside an Indian activist who fought against child labor — makes her both the youngest person ever to be awarded the prize and only the second Pakistani.

But the story of the first Pakistani Nobel laureate is worth remembering, and not for particularly happy reasons.

In 1979, Abdus Salam, a Pakistani physicist known for his pioneering work on subatomic particles, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics alongside two other scientists. The research conducted by Salam and his colleagues anticipated the discovery decades later of the Higgs Boson, known colloquially as the "God particle."

In the years preceding his Nobel victory, Salam had been one of Pakistan's most notable and acclaimed scientists. He helped establish Pakistan's space agency, was a science adviser to the government and played an integral role in starting research into nuclear and other technologies.

But as far as many people in Pakistan were concerned, there was one blot on his record: Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect, whose adherents are considered heretics by some Muslims because they don't believe Muhammad was the last prophet.

In 1974, the Pakistani government amended the nation's constitution to decree that members of the sect would not be considered Muslims under the country's laws. Salam resigned from his government post and eventually moved to Europe, where he would live until his death in Oxford in 1996.

His Nobel prize in 1979 was the source of muted celebration at home, but received far more acclaim elsewhere, including in India, Pakistan's archrival neighbor. Pakistan's Express Tribune recounts:

While [Salam] was shunned in his own country, the world held him in high regard. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, invited him to India and bestowed a great gesture of respect by not only serving him tea with her own hands, but also sitting by his feet.
In Geneva, Switzerland, a road was named after him. In Beijing, the prime minister and president of China attended a dinner hosted in his honour while the South Korean president requested Salam to advise Korean scientists on how to win the Nobel Prize. Salam was also presented with dozens of honorary degrees of doctorate and awards for his hard work.

Just this past week, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, a U.N.-affiliated institute based in Trieste, Italy, commemorated its 50th anniversary.

But none of Salam's great accomplishments mitigated bias against his community in Pakistan. There are roughly 3 million Ahmadis in Pakistan; other communities exist throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia. In Pakistan, further religious laws tightened the scope of their religious practice — Ahmadis, for example, aren't technically allowed to call their places of worship "mosques" — and created a legal basis for the Ahmadis' continued persecution. On grounds that they are supposed "apostates," Ahmadis face the perpetual risk of prosecution for simply observing their faith.

The community also became vulnerable to violence from intolerant religious extremists. This year alone, at least 13 Ahmadis have been killed in targeted attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, steeped in sectarian slaughter, has called for the death of Ahmadis and the destruction of their holy sites.

Per his own instructions, Salam's body was taken back to Pakistan and buried next to the graves of his parents. His gravestone epitaph read, "First Muslim Nobel Laureate." But a local magistrate ordered the word "Muslim" to be obscured — much like Salam's larger legacy in Pakistan.

The sad, pathetic irony of all this was that Salam was a proud Muslim and saw his scientific pursuits as an extension of his Islamic identity. Here's Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading Pakistani scientist and commentator, on Salam's worldview:

Intensely proud of the Muslim contributions to science and civilization, and upset at how they are usually forgotten or sidelined, Salam would gently but eloquently admonish Western audiences for their ignorance. Significantly, he began his Nobel Prize speech about the travel of the Michael the Scot to Muslim Spain in the search for knowledge; in those days the lands of Islam were the sole repositories of learning. Before Muslim audiences he would make passionate exhortations that Muslims should re-enter the world of science and technology before they became utterly marginalized. Nothing hurt him more than the stony barrenness of the intellect in Islamic countries today.

That "stony barrenness" is now once more in view. Like Salam, Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban tried to kill for her outspoken role in promoting education for girls, lives in de facto exile in Britain. She is the source of a conspicuous and disgraceful amount of slander back home, with some critics deeming her a stooge of Western interests, a CIA agent, and a "useless type of girl."

Islamists of various stripes, including some figures with a great deal of influence, have all heaped such calumny upon the teenager and will likely continue to do so, even as many others in Pakistan celebrate her mission and her achievements.

Out of safety concerns, Malala may not return to Pakistan for many years to come. One can only hope that the country's second Nobel laureate won't remain as cut off from her homeland as its first.