Every Monday at 5 pm a study circle is organized at Forman Christian College. A dozen or so young students deeply disenchanted with the Pakistani society convene in a class situated in a quiet corner in the Science building. Here, a physicist by the name of Pervez Hoodbhoy, who has set the agenda for the meeting a week prior, leads the conversation, often by placing pertinent questions before the participants.
Pervez is a well-spoken man and has strong command of both Urdu and English. Sometimes it is almost unnerving how well he transitions between the two languages when translating himself. Even in anger he is soft-spoken, although a flush of red subsumes him when he intends to be particularly expressive.
A typical day with Prof. Hoodbhoy
The discussion on a particular day is ‘Do we need God?’. The students have not read up on the subject nor done any research. It appears the entire room will be spitballing their opinions on a subject that is entirely philosophical and deeply profound. Most of the students are highly westernized, as is obvious from their dress or from the pride they feel in not understanding ordinary Urdu words. This is typical of the crowd he attracts.
The topic, cryptically worded, is in essence whether morality is possible without religion. The case is built for the affirmative by speculating that since the areligious West is functionally moral and has made strides in acquiring rights for minorities, including the LGBT and women, and its sexual liberation has not led to major social catastrophe, it is the model to emulate.
I appear to be the only one objecting, offering the meek disruption to their utilitarian dream by stating that the jury is still out on how well the western experiment has played out. Come to think of it now, and there was so much more to be said but as a young, underconfident student I was not too inclined to go against the tide. Perhaps the boldest stance of all belonged to Hoodbhoy who, as the fountainhead of wisdom, reserves for himself the final word. For him, religion has been the root cause of all that is evil and bad in our society, and should swiftly be weeded out. I’m struck by how radical that notion is, not to speak of how ignorant. As we depart, I’m slightly perturbed but nonetheless invigorated by the discussion.
Pervez Hoodbhoy has given a befitting response to FC College rector in this video message. He exposed the administration and poor academic performance of the faculty at the Physics department as the management continues to promote mediocrity.
— Naya Daur Media (@nayadaurpk) July 7, 2020
Pervez Hoodbhoy is the sort of person not to confine himself to one domain. At Forman Christian College, he teaches not just Physics but a course in Sociology titled “Science and the World Around Us.” There, again, he embarks on a similar path. The course is far more structured than the study circle and substantially more academic in substance, yet it is open-ended enough for Professor Hoodbhoy to sneak in ideas about ‘new atheism’ quite regularly and espouse his beliefs i.e. that religion and religious education are at the heart of Pakistan’s scientific backwardness. All causal factors are invariably reduced to the one: religion.
A physicist renowned for his political views, Hoodbhoy is a mainstay at most of the literary festivals in Pakistan and has a dedicated following among the nation’s rich, liberal elite. His notoriety is not owed to any exceptional achievement in his own field of expertise (he has published scientific papers sporadically in the past twenty years) but instead is the result of his progressively bold commentary on Pakistan. Although he constantly mentions Eqbal Ahmed and Edward Said as inspirational figures, he remains a far cry from the brilliance and empathy that embody those luminaries.
His hawkish stance, along with those of his like-minded colleagues once led the country’s military further and further into the depths of the US ‘War on Terror’, embroiled in an unwinnable battle against its own citizens. While many cried caution, Hoodbhoy added his voice to the American echo of ‘do more’, expressing strong support for the drone program as well as the military operations.
On the War on Terror
The military expeditions first delved Pakistan into a state of utter chaos, and for a long decade afterwards the country was bruised and battered by its unfortunate clash with terror and indiscriminate violence. When military success was finally at hand, the conversation quickly shifted to the military’s excesses as a disgruntled tribal youth began to voice its disaffection. These bold cheerleaders of the War on Terror suddenly changed tack; the military became the aggressor and the tribals the victim. Having seen the massive fallout from the operation on Lal Masjid one would have hoped the likes of him would have learnt their lesson. Instead, in February 2020, he urged again the authorities to throw caution to the wind, rein-in the Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz and make a repeat of the events that led to the eruption of large-scale violence across the Pakistani mainland in 2007.
Rather than claim ownership for their share of the blame in the rapidly destabilizing security situation in Pakistan, Hoodbhoy prefers to pat himself and his like-minded fellows on the back for the military’s hard-won battles against the TTP after the 2014 APS attack. He heaps praises on the Indian liberals as well, whom he credits for standing witness to Modi’s crimes and exposing him internationally. Contrary to anything Eqbal Ahmed and Edward Said ever endorsed, Indian liberals’ credentials are marred by their jingoistic stance on Kashmir, and few voices have surfaced in protest against the revocation of Articles 370 and 35a.
As Ayesha Jalal notes, Indian secularism (of which the Indian liberal is a die-hard defender) is a useful tool to keep the Muslim minority in check. Very recently, Shashi Tharoor was criticized for dictating to Muslims protesting the bigoted CAA and NRC what the correct amount of religiosity was in protests.
Moreover, most liberals worth their salt acknowledged early on that a military War on Terror strategy had made matters worse, including Arundhati Roy, while Hoodbhoy ecstatically urged on the American assault on ex-FATA. Even as he condemns the state for continuing to tolerate Lal Masjid’s Maulana Abdul Aziz and his ‘Burqa Brigade Militants’ instead of quashing them in an ‘unforgivably brutal’ manner as had been done by Middle Eastern regimes faced with similar insurrections, he describes Najam Sethi as one of the ‘finest people around’. One might ask if Mr. Hoodbhoy is aware that Sethi, one of Pakistan’s top political commentators, too, scaled Balochistan’s hills alongside militant Baloch ‘sarmachars’ once.
He persistently challenges popularly held views by Pakistani historians as deliberate misconstructions by conflating them with erroneous views taught in Pakistani school history books. His aspersions on Jinnah, the nation’s founding-father, who is depicted as both confused, and insincere to the Pakistan cause are meant to weaken the foundations of the state. He is not above using hyperbole to drive home his arguments either. From suggesting that Pakistan do away with the ‘Two-Nation Theory’, one of the nation’s fundamental building blocks, to decrying Jinnah for not having written a research paper, his assertions oscillate from the absurd to the hysterical.
Hoodbhoy fails to understand that Jinnah was a lawyer during the first half of the previous century, not to speak of the plethora of letters, speeches, and political manoeuvres he left in his wake. For such a distinct lack of understanding of anthropology and for bearing upon Jinnah this unreasonable demand of thematically presenting his vision for Pakistan, it is indeed astounding that Hoodbhoy is such a central figure in Pakistan’s mainstream discourse.
Moreover, to use confused as an adjective for Jinnah would be a lazy person’s understanding of the man. Certainly, with enough effort some semblance of his inner thoughts can be acquired, as done brilliantly by Akbar S. Ahmed, Saleena Karim, and others. If history is not the physicist’s forte, maybe it is advisable that he refrain from opining on it. Even Indian writers critical of Jinnah such as Narendra Singh Sarila and Anita Inder Singh mention how Jinnah outwitted the Congress with his firmness and foresight.
More recently, his diatribe against the TV series Drilis: Ertugrul offers a glimpse into the man’s mania. To criticize historical fiction for being inaccurate is utterly ludicrous. On top of that, he seems to insist that to project a peaceful image of Islam, all account of war and enmity (for however noble and virtuous a cause) must be scrubbed from popular consciousness. If that is the prerequisite for peace, then man has never known an instance of it. Even the west reminisces ever so often about the second World War, in order to mobilize opinion in favour of the liberal international system. Even more silly is his assertion that ISIS-type organizations would find inspiration in the television show.
His nativist view of the history of a multi-ethnic nation based on religion also dents his liberal deed. For a people united by common values and ideas, nationhood has remarkably little to do with one’s geographical boundaries. For many of Pakistan’s Muslims, Saladin is the ultimate hero, a Kurd from 12th century Arabia, so is Tariq bin Ziyad, a Berber.
In his latest article, by juxtaposing Indian vilification of invaders against Pakistan’s glorification of them, Hoodbhoy makes one critical mistake; he doesn’t account for the hate and detestation that India’s reading of history inspires in its citizens. For Pakistanis, no such depraved ideas are inspired about their fellow countrymen (or outsiders) by their shared reading of history. These false parallels are constantly invoked by Hoodbhoy for whom Islam is the bane of Pakistan’s existence.
Hoodhboy has become a pop-sociologist. A celebrity first and then an academician. His intellectual quackery must be called out before his star rises any further. How much his message resounds in future with larger sections of Pakistan’s youth remains to be seen.
Ahmedullah Agha is a graduate in History from Forman Christian College. He is currently applying to grad schools. He tweets at @aghaahmedullah. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.