“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.
“If you ask them they will tell you how much they would like to got to Jamia Millia or Aligarh Muslim Univ.”
Predictably, things haven’t gone easy on the Afghan front. A media training centre run by IVA at a madrassa in Jalalabad was burnt down in 2010 by unidentified men for reasons that are still unknown. “Just because I am English, people capitalise on it to achieve whatever ends they need to,” Butt says. Based in New Delhi for most of the year, he’s currently working on modifying his curriculum to distance mode. This is something he feels will help him gradually reduce IVA’s physical presence but also, as he points out, increase the versatility of the curriculum by bringing in teachers from across the world and also increase the catchment area of students in Afghanistan. He is currently negotiating the adoption of the academy’s curriculum in Indian universities like Jamia Millia, where madrassa students come for further studies.
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