Abdus Salam
Uncredited  /  AP
In this picture taken on Oct 15, 1979, the first Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate Professor Abdus Salam, pictured in London, England after he heard the news that he was joint winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics.
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updated 7/9/2012 10:08:54 AM ET 2012-07-09T14:08:54

The pioneering work of Abdus Salam, Pakistan's only Nobel laureate, helped lead to the apparent discovery of the subatomic "God particle" last week. But the late physicist is no hero at home, where his name has been stricken from school textbooks.

Praise within Pakistan for Salam, who also guided the early stages of the country's nuclear program, faded decades ago as Muslim fundamentalists gained power. He belonged to the Ahmadi sect, which has been persecuted by the government and targeted by Taliban militants who view its members as heretics.

Their plight — along with that of Pakistan's other religious minorities, such as Shiite Muslims, Christians and Hindus — has deepened in recent years as hardline interpretations of Islam have gained ground and militants have stepped up attacks against groups they oppose. Most Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims.

Salam, a child prodigy born in 1926 in what was to become Pakistan after the partition of British-controlled India, won more than a dozen international prizes and honors. In 1979, he was co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, which theorizes how fundamental forces govern the overall dynamics of the universe. He died in 1996.

Salam and Steven Weinberg, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, independently predicted the existence of a subatomic particle now called the Higgs boson, named after a British physicist who theorized that it endowed other particles with mass, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist who once worked with Salam. It is also known as the "God particle" because its existence is vitally important toward understanding the early evolution of the universe.

Physicists in Switzerland stoked worldwide excitement Wednesday when they announced they have all but proven the particle's existence. This was done using the world's largest atom smasher at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, near Geneva.

"This would be a great vindication of Salam's work and the Standard Model as a whole," said Khurshid Hasanain, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Salam wielded significant influence in Pakistan as the chief scientific adviser to the president, helping to set up the country's space agency and institute for nuclear science and technology. Salam also assisted in the early stages of Pakistan's effort to build a nuclear bomb, which it eventually tested in 1998.

Salam's life, along with the fate of the 3 million other Ahmadis in Pakistan, drastically changed in 1974 when parliament amended the constitution to declare that members of the sect were not considered Muslims under Pakistani law.

Ahmadis believe their spiritual leader, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908, was a prophet of God — a position rejected by the government in response to a mass movement led by Pakistan's major Islamic parties. Islam considers Muhammad the last prophet and those who subsequently declared themselves prophets as heretics.

All Pakistani passport applicants must sign a section saying the Ahmadi faith's founder was an "impostor" and his followers are "non-Muslims." Ahmadis are prevented by law in Pakistan from "posing as Muslims," declaring their faith publicly, calling their places of worship mosques or performing the Muslim call to prayer. They can be punished with prison and even death.

Salam resigned from his government post in protest following the 1974 constitutional amendment and eventually moved to Europe to pursue his work. In Italy, he created a center for theoretical physics to help physicists from the developing world.

Although Pakistan's then-president, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, presented Salam with Pakistan's highest civilian honor after he won the Nobel Prize, the general response in the country was muted. The physicist was celebrated more enthusiastically by other nations, including Pakistan's archenemy, India.

Despite his achievements, Salam's name appears in few textbooks and is rarely mentioned by Pakistani leaders or the media. By contrast, fellow Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan, who played a key role in developing the country's nuclear bomb and later confessed to spreading nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, is considered a national hero. Khan is a Muslim.

Officials at Quaid-i-Azam University had to cancel plans for Salam to lecture about his Nobel-winning theory when Islamist student activists threatened to break the physicist's legs, said his colleague Hoodbhoy.

"The way he has been treated is such a tragedy," said Hoodbhoy. "He went from someone who was revered in Pakistan, a national celebrity, to someone who could not set foot in Pakistan. If he came, he would be insulted and could be hurt or even killed."

The president who honored Salam would later go on to intensify persecution of Ahmadis, for whom life in Pakistan has grown even more precarious. Taliban militants attacked two mosques packed with Ahmadis in Lahore in 2010, killing at least 80 people.

"Many Ahmadis have received letters from fundamentalists since the 2010 attacks threatening to target them again, and the government isn't doing anything," said Qamar Suleiman, a spokesman for the Ahmadi community.

For Salam, not even death saved him from being targeted.

Hoodbhoy said his body was returned to Pakistan in 1996 after he died in Oxford, England, and was buried under a gravestone that read "First Muslim Nobel Laureate." A local magistrate ordered that the word "Muslim" be erased.

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Video: Pakistan clears NATO supply line

  1. Closed captioning of: Pakistan clears NATO supply line

    >>> we're back with a major breakthrough. after months of tension between the united states and pakistan , islamabad has given nato the go ahead to move supplies across the border. in a statement, secretary of state hillary clinton said, "we are sorry for the losses suffered by the pakistani military . we are committed to working closely with pakistan and afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again." nbc news pakistan bureau chief joins us here in new york on this fourth of july. amna , was this widely expected?

    >> well, richard, we knew that something was in the works. this statement yesterday is the result of months of negotiation between the two sides on a number of issues, not just this apology that much has been made about but also on the cost of containers traveling those supply lines , on the terms of usage of those routes, also on the drone issue we've heard so much about, also on military operations in waziristan, the area bordering afghanistan. there are a number of issues back and forth. both sides had hoped some kind of agreement would be reached soon. those are crucial supply lines for the u.s. finally that came to an end yesterday with secretary clinton's statement.

    >> amna , the united states was using routes in russia and china during the blockage. explain to us why this is important strategically when we look at not only the operational capabilities on the ground but also when we look at the issues of policy between the countries and the united states .

    >> that alternative route that you mentioned is known as the ndn, the northern distribution network. it is longer. it is more costly for the u.s. to use. and it was costing the u.s. about an additional $100 million a month to travel goods via that route. so the fact that pakistan has reopened these supply lines , they are cheaper, faster, easier for the u.s. to use, and that means serious savings for the u.s. as for the relationship, i think it remains to be seen how things move forward. certainly both sides have said they welcome this move. it's a significant step forward to repairing relations. but those relations have been badly damaged over the last year. so we'll wait to see what comes next. for now, both sides say they're optimistic and committed to moving forward.

    >> nbc news pakistan bureau chief amna nawaz.

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