ISLAMABAD: Last week, a workshop titled ‘Jinns and Black Magic’ was organised in Islamabad by the department of humanities at the COMSATS Institute of Technology (CIIT), one of Pakistan’s largest universities. The invited speaker, Raja Zia-ul-Haq, introduced as a ‘spiritual cardiologist’ is reputedly an expert on demonic possessions and evil spirits. He is popular: a press photograph shows no standing room left in the university’s main auditorium.

Interesting logic was used to prove the existence of jinns and black magic. The speaker first categorised all unseen creatures into three types: those that fly; those that change shape and appearance depending upon circumstance; and those that find abode in garbage or dark places. Why, he asked, would Hollywood invest in horror movies and paranormal phenomena if these didn’t actually exist?

But hang on! Doesn’t his argument force you to accept that Hollywood’s popular vampires, werewolves, and zombies are also real, not mere fiction? Surely this nonsensical claim could have been challenged by a single bold person in the audience. But, as at all such events, the organisers ensured that the preacher’s three-hour monologue would be uninterruptable.

What lies next is to be seen. Perhaps CIIT could go for creating a jinn-based telecommunications network. Another promising direction could be radar-evading jinn-powered cruise missiles. Jinn chemistry, a research subject activated in the Ziaul Haq era, could be another growth point. CIIT could also pursue a proposal from the 1970s, initiated by a senior director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, to replace fossil and nuclear fuels with jinn power.

Actually, last week’s event was unexceptional. In schools, colleges, and universities similar ‘motivational speakers’ claiming paranormal knowledge are today’s rage. The Institute for Business Management (Karachi), for example, organised a meeting on ‘The last moments of a man’. The poster showed the grayed hulk of a man slouching through a graveyard. Students (again a full auditorium, I’m told) were given graphic glimpses into life in the next world. The source of this information, probably secretly SMS’ed from inside the grave, was not revealed by the speaker.

One might have thought that Pakistan’s super-elite universities would be different. Lums, the country’s most expensive private university, has a school of science and engineering built with American dollars. It appeared to have a serious mission but several Lums professors now openly deride scientific reasoning.

Quite accidentally, earlier this year I happened to attend a public lecture given by a professor of humanities at Lums whose specialty is science-bashing. While admitting he knew no physics, he went through the usual stale post-modernist critiques of science and then claimed that the Nobel Prize for physics, awarded to American physicist Robert Millikan in 1923, was undeserved since it was based upon a selective choice of data.

The distortions were clear to me, but when the professor poured a ton of scorn on Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc squared, my eyes nearly popped out and my heart stopped beating. What else could make an atom bomb explode, or a nuclear reactor produce electricity? Jinns, surely! But he is not alone in making such claims. The head of the biology department, in an email to the entire Lums faculty, excitedly claimed that reciting or listening to certain holy verses “can control genes and metabolites” and suggested that specially equipped audio-visual rooms be made in hospitals to treat terminally ill patients.

Perhaps to underscore its determination to shift away from Western science, last month Lums ousted Pakistan’s most highly regarded and respected mathematical physicist from his tenured position. Fortunately, he loses nothing since Harvard, Princeton, or MIT (from where he received his PhD) will welcome him with open arms.

Paranormal and conspiratorial ways of thinking dovetail well with each other. Hence it should not surprise that the current vice chancellor of Punjab University, Pakistan’s largest public university, has written a book asserting that 9/11 was an inside job. Further, according to a newspaper interview, he says that the world’s entire economic system is controlled by Jews huddled together in the town of Monte Carlo.

Conspiracy buffs can expect even more delights now that the famous Zaid Hamid, having successfully dodged his sentence of 1,000 lashes, is back from his months of incarceration in Saudi Arabia. This fiery orator is expected to soon resume his popular campus speaking tours across Pakistan.

The all-pervasive anti-reason, anti-science attitude on our campuses might seem difficult to understand. No, it’s not hard, just think for a moment. To spit venom at science and pillory its epistemological basis is easier than falling off a broken chair. Rejecting science means you are spared the required toil, effort, and exacting mental discipline needed for learning hard stuff like math and physics. Besides, you might not even have the talent for it. It’s far easier to curse science than to woo it.

Consider the advantages: mental disorders like epilepsy can be understood and cured without bringing in neurosurgeons or clinical psychologists since, of course, it’s the jinns at work. A good resident pir or exorcist would do fine. You don’t have to learn the messy science of meteorology because jinns make winds. And seismology is useless since earthquakes happen because of our bad deeds.

As for toys and trinkets like computers and cellphones we can, like our Saudi brothers, always buy the best from Apple or Nokia. Some money-hungry Zing-Zang-Zong company will happily run the cellphone networks for Pakistan. The dirty business of technology and inventing things can be safely left to the Chinese, Americans, and Europeans. Their jinns know their job so well.

Pakistan’s universities should have been beacons of enlightenment, open inquiry, and bold new thinking. Instead they are sheep farms. A legion of intellectually lazy and ignorant professors wants a breed of students who will submit to authority, not question or challenge. Knowing that an invented bogeyman subdues five-year-olds effectively, they hope the spectre of unworldly creatures and fear of death will suitably frighten 20-25-year-olds. The newly launched jinn invasion of campuses means that Pakistan’s cultural and intellectual decline will accelerate.

(This article appeared in the Dawn, Pakistan)

(Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.)