“Hindu da khpal yaar dapara da ghwaee ghwakha ham khwaralay wah.” (“A Hindu ate even cow’s meat for the sake of his friend.”)
For someone who knows the Pashtoons like the back of his hand, this Pashto saying brings back memories of a restful Pashtoonistan, very different to the strife-ridden one we know today. “It just shows how well-regarded the Hindus were when things were multicultural. One used to hear this saying even in the 1980s but you don’t come across it at all these days amongst Pashto speakers,” says John Mohammed Butt.
He should know. Born John Michael Butt in Trinidad, he converted to Islam in 1970 when he was travelling among the Pashtoons as a young hippie. Thirteen years later, he was graduating from Darul Uloom Deoband after a six-year stay (he is still the only white man to do so), returning to live among the Pashtoons, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and worked for the BBC as a journalist. “The Pashtoons were a hospitable, big-hearted, open people. We were knocking around and no one condemned us. They put up with us,” says Butt, now 62, recalling the beginning of a relationship that has covered four rather tumultuous decades. Those idyllic days are a distant memory, with the Af-Pak region continuously embroiled in violence and the Pashtoon people often identified as the perpetrators. Not the picture of a people and a region Butt wants to hold on to.
And he’s doing his bit to change it. But what made Butt choose the Pashtoons, and not one of the other major ethnic groups in Afghanistan? Why not the Tajiks, Hazaras or even the Uzbeks? For one, it’s while living among them that he adopted Islam so he’s “unashamed” in acknowledging the ties that bind him to the Pashtoons. “Not only that, it’s also because they hold the key to getting rid of militancy and the pernicious influence of radicalism across the Af-Pak region,” he says. To get there, Butt, who’s presently based in Delhi (he lives in the capital with his Uzbek wife and two little children), has adopted a two-pronged strategy. He’s been running PACT Radio since 2005 which broadcasts programmes on socio-political subjects in Pashto and Persian. And in ’08, he started the Islamic Vocational Academy, a professional institute that offers madrassa graduates training in media, business and Unani medicine. “IVA is not unlike a tree, which has firm roots but whose branches reach out to the sky,” he says. “Likewise, our modules are grounded in Islamic traditions but reach out to the contemporary world.” For example, those in the media programme are reminded of the principle of ‘sanad’ in Islam, which is the “certificate of authenticity” for what appears in the Hadith (a compilation of the Prophet’s sayings). “This is to remind students of how important it is to verify what one hears before printing it,” Butt says.
Since he left Madyan, in Pakistan’s Swat valley, in 2010, Butt has grown increasingly sceptical of Afghanistan’s chances on the stability front. “I was actually relieved when my house was washed away in the 2010 floods,” he says, recollecting how he no longer feels comfortable with local Pashtoons, the way they had been altered by outside, especially Arab, influence. Fundamentalism only worsened with the growing absence of other religious communities, especially the Hindus and Sikhs. “I did not want any vestiges left there. The floods were an exorcism of the good memories that I had of Pashtoonistan.”
As the US troops gradually pull out, Afghanistan has seen the rise of several militias, Taliban pretenders who are often just out to extort money from the people. “Away from the major cities, there’s a complete absence of the state, especially in law and order enforcement,” Butt says. “The Afghan government will not be able to hold its own in the Pashtoon areas.” It’s doubly disheartening for someone like Butt, for as he puts it “I am so involved with the country”. But despite the setbacks, Butt remains steadfast. “I can’t stop now, can I? People think I am Pashtoon,” he says, “My identity, my destiny, is attached to the Pashtoons, even though they are a frustrating people to work with.”
Meanwhile, the IVA project rolls on. His unique approach to training madrassa graduates is something he wants to bring to his alma mater Darul Uloom Deoband too, where he graduated from in 1983. That the seminary produced a white graduate is something, as Butt says, it can be proud of. But that he has been the only one so far is also a reflection of how poorly Muslims from the West—and they are a growing number—relate to Deoband today. “There was another fellow from New Zealand when I was there but he didn’t last,” Butt recalls. Established in 1867, the seminary has zealously rebuffed suggestions for change. Compared to other such seminaries in India, it still has a sparse non-religious curriculum and it still does not take in female students—two changes that Butt feels it should incorporate.
For what are the thousands of students who graduate from Deoband going to do with their degree, especially when there are not even enough mosques and madrassas to go to? Butt argues that the students are actually forward-thinking. “If you ask them, they will tell you how much they would love to go to Jamia Millia or Aligarh Muslim University.”
Given his reformist ideas, he does feel left out amongst the Deobandis. “As soon as you develop your ideas about bringing in modernity to the mullahs and madrassa graduates, they disown you. They do not associate with you as much as they would have had you been a conventional Deobandi mullah,” he says. “I feel I should be better accepted.”
By The Book
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
I stopped reading at-as a young hippie.
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