Global Viewpoint

Prof. S. Ismat Shah, winner of the 2012 International Alumni Achievement Award, discusses his humanitarian work

5/8/2013  8:00 am

Dr. S. Ismat Shah, a native of Pakistan, holds a joint appointment as professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. Dr. Shah earned his Ph.D. in material science and engineering at Illinois in 1986. He was recently presented with the 2012 Sheth International Alumni Achievement Award by Illinois. He was honored for his humanitarian efforts in helping to raise funds and resources for Pakistani and Afghan refugees displaced by natural disaster and war; his promotion of higher education in Pakistan by building schools, providing equipment, delivering lectures and workshops; and advancing the use of alternative energy sources in developing nations from Eastern Europe to South Asia. The award also honors his long-standing commitment to promoting dialogue and fostering cross-cultural understanding between the Muslim community and other religious and social groups in Delaware, particularly after 9/11.

You are an engineer by education, but you have devoted extensive time to social/political causes, such as aiding Afghan refugees. What is your motivation for these efforts?

I am an educator who teaches engineering. I very sincerely believe that a majority of human problems emanate from lack of education. The self awareness that education brings cannot be achieved by any other means. Without self awareness who you are is determined by someone else which is the root cause all social and political evils. So, I do not differentiate between teaching engineering and working for social causes.

Events such as 9/11, and very recently, the Boston Marathon bombings, have made many Americans fear Islam as a radical religion.  In your experiences, what are some of the misunderstandings that arise from such events, and how can we create greater relationships between Muslims and other religious groups in the U.S. and Western Europe?

Education and awareness are again the two elements that could solve these problems to a certain degree. To not know means to fear. That is why darkness is so scary. Our brain does not get enough information to process to come to an informed conclusion and makes an irrational judgment. The result is fear. In human interactions, fear goes on to become biases and eventually hatred.  A logical thought is that a religion with such a large following, more than 1 billion, cannot survive if it is not for the betterment of humanity as whole. Islam is not a cult. As Abe Lincoln said “you cannot fool all the people all the time”; violence can attract a faction, a small group, but not a major part of humanity. It is the message of peace that is the key to Islam and all other human religions and it is a message of peace that attracts large number of people to these religions. To make this point clear, it is the responsibility of ALL Muslims to educate other people on who we are, by their deeds and words. ALL Muslims need to speak the word of peace. This is the only way we can drown the scream of terror.

Your home country continues to struggle with poverty amongst its people. You have personally put forth great effort in promoting education initiatives in Pakistan. What policies would you like to see the Pakistani government put in place to help alleviate poverty and the issues that come with it?  

Poverty in of itself is not a curse. Abject poverty is. You can be poor and still continue to live with dignity within your means. Hopeless poverty is the cancer of our society. It sucks human decency out and what remains is an evil. This evil then manifests itself in all sorts of social and political forms. This is where we need work. The GDP per capita of Pakistan is $2700. If everyone gets this much money, everyone can live a decent life. The problem is the distribution of wealth. The good old cliché “the richer getting richer and poor getting poorer” is working nicely in Pakistan. One can help this disparity by putting more efforts in grass roots education. I have several examples of the families that have risen from the conditions of despair only because one member of the family got educated and went on to make a decent living. The effect is exponential. Education breeds education. You educated one person, you educate several generations.

You have advocated the use of alternative energy. What are some of the technologies you consider to be true solutions to the world’s robust energy needs, and how realistic is their widespread implementation?

There is no single technology that can provide enough energy that can support our current demand except fossil fuels, and they will eventually dwindle down to nothing. Without fossil fuels, you can combine  solar, wind, nuclear, and other energy sources, and you still cannot come close to amount of energy we are making by burning the fossil fuels. We have modeled this for countries like Germany. One can only provide a maximum of 40 percent of the current consumption by all alternate energies combine. But there indeed is a solution. If you cannot meet the demand, why not reduce the demand. We see all sorts of wastes of energy around us. The thing about energy is that once you use it, it is gone. Thermodynamics says you cannot convert all of the energy so there is always some waste. Therefore, the only solution is to use it as little as possible. This solution requires a multi-prong approach where the technology is lead by sociology. We need behavioral change, not just material change. Remember, a bike is 700 percent more efficient than a car but you cannot ride bikes for long distances. Can we design cities where we don’t have to ride long distances? Europeans certainly know how to do this.