Pervez Hoodbhoy fights a host of dark forces in his country – from the belief in jinns on university campuses to Koranic verses that generate new cells in human bodies. The rise of unreason in Pakistan is a major concern for Hoodbhoy, once a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon and other US universities, who now teaches physics and mathematics at Forman Christian College University in Lahore. His courage in taking on superstition and blind belief in religious texts cost him his job a few years ago at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences.

His other major battle is on the nuclear front. Professor Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist, campaigns tirelessly against the nuclear obsession of his government, both with nuclear missiles and nuclear power plants. He is deeply involved in the global campaign against nuclear weapons, being one of the sponsors of the highly-regarded Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which engages policy makers, scientists and the public in the disarmament debate. As one of the most popular columnists of Pakistan, his writings alternate between nuclear disarmament and the need for rational thought and a scientific temper.

During a whistle-stop lecture tour of India in January (12 lectures in 11 days), Prof Hoodbhoy took time out for an interview. Excerpts:

What has been the response to your talks on the need to foster the scientific temper?

I spoke at three IITs, the International Institute of Information Technology and Maulana Azad National Urdu University, both in Hyderabad. Everywhere I received a lot of attention and warmth. There was not a single place where I got a hostile reception. But there were questions that indicated that some people did not agree with my position. At IIT-Delhi there was a professor who said that other than science there are other ways of receiving knowledge, such as contained in the holy books. He said it is only through deep reflection that we can understand their meaning.

It’s an argument that I heard not once but twice and thrice. In IIT-Gandhinagar, I was asked the same question, but privately. To the Delhi professor I replied, “Well, if the ancient texts can give me a new experiment to perform whose results I can check. If they can lead me to design a new machine, if they can predict for me something that I do not know already then I’ll renounce my science and become your chela.”

Was the audience amused?

Yes, there was a lot of laughter. In fact, a woman who asked a question after that said she liked my answer which would have been hers, too.

What do you make of such questions by scientists? Incidentally, IIT-Delhi has a tie-up with NGOs linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which has caused a lot of disquiet...

There are eerie similarities between what has been happening in Pakistan and here now in India. For example, very recently a professor of molecular biology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Mohammed Tariq, sent an email to the entire faculty that if you listen to Surah-e-Rahman (a verse from Koran) then new genes will be created and those genes can fight cancer. So he proposed that hospitals in Pakistan should set up special audio rooms where terminally ill patients can be treated by making them hear this verse repeatedly. I wrote a critical article on this to which Lahore University of Management Sciences reacted. The official spokesman defended Mohammed Tariq and said Pervez Hoodbhoy has an axe to grind because, you know, I had been fired from there.

Compare this with what I read in your papers had occurred at the Indian Science Congress a few days ago. We were told that Lord Shiva is the greatest environmentalist, and that at the beginning of the conference someone blew a conch shell for a whole two minutes because he said the mind will be enlightened and you will develop new faculties of thinking! This is how the Indian Science Congress starts?

I said in my lectures that I know much more about what’s going on in Pakistan and I will talk about that. We are much more advanced than you in such things but you are catching up. It started a long while ago and there have been major controversies for a long time. In 1998, I was involved in a public argument with a nuclear engineer, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who believed that jinn are made of fire and could be tapped to solve the energy crisis!

Apart from the Lahore University of Management Sciences, have you faced any problems for taking on such scientists, any threats?

I’d rather not say.

Why are our societies and scientists regressing when our countries have become more developed, when our people are more educated and are faring better than in the past?

Yes, that’s an issue. Why in a world that has been defined by science which has made such spectacular advances in so many fields such as cosmology and human biology are we regressing? Here, I am making a speculation. It may be because science has become too successful for its own good. We as humans are becoming very nervous. Science has begun to lay bare the secrets of nature and that includes us. We are beginning to understand that we are aggregates of atoms and molecules. All things which were wrapped in layers of mystery have been explained as natural phenomenon. All this is making us nervous. After all the mysteries have been unwrapped what lies behind it all? We are afraid to face the question: does life have meaning? Science does not point to a meaning. This fear makes us susceptible to the siren call of religion which says we can give you the answers, why you are here on this earth, about the ultimate purpose of life.

Given that religion has simple answers to complex issues the vast majority of people are drawn to that. It offers simple answers and comfort. Like why did your three-year-old daughter die? Karma and divine will all come into play.

Are you suggesting that people today, especially the young, are more afraid than people were in the past?

On the one hand there is a lot of crass materialism and on the other hand less questioning. And there is more acceptance of tradition, unquestioning acceptance. In Pakistan, when I was growing up, the mosques would be more or less empty most days and about two-thirds full on a Friday. Now, practically every day the mosques are full and overflowing onto the streets on Fridays. And there are many, many more masjids and madrassas today. The hold of religion on the youth in Pakistan has increased hugely. I am told that people here have also become more religious but I don’t have much knowledge of that.

In Pakistan, this is because the culture has changed thanks to Zia-ul Haq who redefined the country away from being a Muslim country to an Islamic state. A Muslim country is one in which Muslims are the majority, but an Islamic country is one which religion is the defining factor.

Thank you for that definition. Where do you fit into such a society with your championing of the scientific temper, of rational thought?

There is a penalty. You are ostracised by officialdom, in terms of committees, jobs. I am seen as anti-religious. My book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, argues for scientific rationalism within Islam and beyond.

Did you speak on this issue in any of your lectures?

Yes, at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad. I must say I was taken aback by the burqas and beards in the audience, more than I have ever seen in Islamabad. There was no woman without a burqa or hijab. There I spoke about the rise and fall of science in Islam. There was a time when Islam was a brilliant civilisation. This was between the 9th and 13th centuries when Muslims did original work in science, in medicine, mathematics, astronomy etc. That was because the Islamic civilisation was open to thought, to new ways of thinking. That’s when the courts of enlightened caliphs like Haroun Al Rashid and Abdul Rahman were open to all intellectuals, whether Christian, Jew or idol worshippers, who came together in a free and open atmosphere.

In fact, Islam had a strong tradition of reason and rationality embodied in the Mu’tazila Movement. It was the dominant way of thinking based on Greek logic and dialectics and it lasted for a long time. My contention is that when it was defeated by orthodoxy, Islam lost its intellectual vigour. My message to the students and faculty of this Urdu university was that if you want Islam to be once again a vibrant religion and you want Muslims to get out of the hole they have dug themselves into then you must do what Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had advocated in the 1850s. That is, learn English, learn science, embrace modernity and stop looking back to the past.

But isn’t that a message for all reactionary forces, including the RSS, which harks back to a golden past?

At one level, yes. But it is so much, much worse with Muslims. First of all, this university had a preponderance of students from madrassas, with very little exposure to modern ideas. So, my lecture was received with some applause but also a lot of scepticism. In fact, some of the faculty took exception to my advocacy of modernity and they made very eloquent speeches during the question and answer session about their views. Then the vice chancellor felt he had to remind the audience that the Koran is the ultimate wisdom and the reason Muslims had fallen behind was because they had not adhered to the true message of the Koran which, in his mind, advocates the acquisition of knowledge and, therefore, science. He spoke for as long as I did!

Let’s turn to your other passion, nuclear disarmament. How do you see the shift in the strategic balance between India and Pakistan with the latter developing tactical nuclear weapons which it says would be used even against a ground attack from India?

Pakistan is saying that tactical nuclear weapons will be used only in defensive mode. The excuse for developing this is former army chief of India Gen Deepak Kapoor’s Cold Start strategy leaked in 2010 for cutting Pakistan into “salami slices” as punishment for Pakistan hosting terrorist attacks inside India. India has denied there’s any such plan but Pakistan says it will use these low-yield nuclear bombs to forestall the advance of Indian troops into Pakistan. India, which says it will adhere to the principle of no first use, has made it clear that it will retaliate wherever Pakistan uses nuclear weapons.

Military analysts say there is a big danger in the use of tactical nuclear weapons by conventional forces because the temptation to use these if available right there near the battlefield is high. Does this not increase the risk of a nuclear war in the region?

It is tempting to use small nuclear weapons when confronting a large adversary and to believe that the response will remain on the same scale. This assumption has never been tested and so the Indian response will remain a matter of speculation. It is perfectly possible that the first nuke will be followed by a second… and that exchanges will end only when the entire arsenals on both sides are exhausted. In that case both countries will win but neither will exist.

But Pakistan has now adopted a full-spectrum deterrence nuclear strategy, according to defence experts. Does this not change everything?

India, too, is going for full-spectrum deterrence, including nuclear submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and space-based assets. Pakistan does not have the technical capability for such extensive developments and so it’s opting for the poor man’s choices. Tactical nuclear weapons are one-tenth to one-twentieth the size of the Hiroshima bomb and these are truck-mounted weapons, four missiles in a launcher. These are much less dangerous than the regular N-missiles. But there is always the issue of it falling into the hands of jihadis who would like to trigger a full-scale war with India. These are not new weapons. In the 1950s these were deployed on the Turkish border with Russia. Then the US realised the danger of this falling into the hands of some crazy warmongers and it withdrew them.

Zia Mian, the highly regarded Pakistani-American physicist and nuclear expert at Princeton University, says: “Efforts at valorising the bomb have succeeded, and have now become a major part of the Pakistani national sensibility.” Is this your perception too?

Absolutely! The Pakistani bomb has been linked with national prowess and virility. It is touted as a technological achievement of the highest order whereas the truth is that making bombs is within the reach of any country that has the will or desire to spite the world – as North Korea has shown. Both India and Pakistan celebrated in 1998 but in fact there was nothing to celebrate.

Pakistanis appear to accept nuclear energy as a necessity. I’ve not read of any popular protests against nuclear projects there. In India, the mention of an N-power project provokes protests and many of the activists have been jailed.

Some citizens, including myself, took the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission to court on the matter of the Chinese nuclear power plants being constructed along the Karachi coast. To our great surprise we won a stay order. But after two months the order was vacated. Construction is now proceeding. There is worry among Karachiites but no effective organisation has yet emerged.