At 85 years of age, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan – better known as AQ Khan – succumbed to the deadly Coronavirus on Sunday, 10th October 2021. A state funeral was held for the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program on the same day, and he was laid to rest at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. Pakistanis around the world remembered him for his magnanimous contributions in developing Pakistan’s nuclear energy and weapons capacity – a feature which many believe ensured the very survival of the country.
When India began testing its nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government enlisted the help of Dr. AQ Khan. At the time, he had been working in the Netherlands and had managed to access confidential information regarding the enrichment of uranium and the consequent development of nuclear energy. With him spearheading the movement, by 1998 Pakistan was able to compete against India in the nuclear arms race when it conducted its first nuclear weapon test. Many believe that without Dr. AQ Khan, the country would have succumbed to India’s military dominance and would have eventually been wiped off the map. Nuclear capability is also seen to have generally strengthened Pakistan’s position on the world stage.
At the same time however, the international community – Western nations in particular – were extremely unhappy with Dr. AQ Khan’s actions. They condemned him for spreading Weapons of Mass Destruction, despite the efforts put in to restrict this by organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2004, Dr. AQ Khan also confessed to illegally supplying nuclear weapons technology to countries such as North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Following this, he remained under house arrest for five years until 2009, beyond which his movements continued to remain heavily restricted. His own perspective, however, was that by sharing this information he could end the Western monopoly over nuclear weapons. He strongly disapproved of the concept that Muslim countries were not allowed to possess nuclear weapons which, by extension, meant that they were at a disproportionately disadvantaged position in all international dealings and negotiations. After confessing to the illegal distribution of nuclear weapon technology, he is also quoted to have said, “I saved Pakistan twice: first, when I built the nuclear bomb. Second, when I confessed”. This was possibly in context of the widespread presumption that it was the State itself which was involved in these dealings; with Dr. AQ Khan personally taking the blame, the State was able to avoid much deeper consequences such as trade sanctions and international isolation.
Irrespective of one’s personal opinions on his politics, there is no denying that his work defended Pakistan’s very existence. Despite his significant contributions to the nation, the current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and the Chief Ministers of Punjab, Balochistan and KPK were notably missing from the funeral – a move highly criticized by a great number of Pakistanis. It is also worth noting that the man who transformed Pakistan into the world’s first – and only – nuclear Muslim country spent the last two decades of his life in disgrace and almost forgotten. It took his death to refresh our memories of his contributions.