NEW DELHI, India — After the shooting of 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufza last week, allegations emerged that the attack was ordered by a feared "Radio Mullah" — South Asia's equivalent of a right wing shock-jock — named Maulana Fazlullah.
Fazlullah is notorious for his reactionary vitriol. In 2009, he ordered all girls' schools in the Swat Valley closed.
For Englishman John Mohammed Butt, Fazlullah's alleged order was a bitter call to action. Butt, an Islamic scholar, is a mullah in the true sense of the word. But he uses the airwaves to fight radicals.
Call Butt, 62, "the other Radio Mullah." It's a vocation he's pursued for decades.
Butt is the only "white mullah" ever to graduate from Darul Uloom Deoband, the seat of South Asian Islam and the birthplace of the Deobandi school of thought, sometimes denigrated as “the religion of the Taliban.”
A slim, gregarious man with ghost-pale skin and a talib's fist-length beard, Butt converted to Islam on the hippie trail in 1970. Since then, he has spent most of his life living among tribal Pashtuns in the borderless region of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he calls “Pashtunistan.”
In 1993, he helped create a soap opera called “New Home, New Life” for the BBC's Pashto service, which used stories about rural life to communicate subtle messages about women's independence, as well as information on health and hygiene. Even after leaving the BBC in 1998, the white Deobandi's influence has spread.
Butt started PACT Radio in 2005, broadcasting in Pashto throughout the cross-border tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With a radio station based in Swat from 2008 to 2009, he invited Yousifzai to discuss girls' education on his radio program in the early days of her struggle – though PACT has since moved its headquarters to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
“We worked in Swat at the same time as Malala was writing her diary,” said Butt. “We were countering the militants with an alternative voice of mainstream, moderate Islam.”
“We were on the radio, really in the thick of things. Every day we were going, 'When's the bomb going to go off?' It was really hairy.”
Today, Butt spends most of his time in New Delhi with his wife and two small daughters. He says he sees himself as a "normal bloke."
“I seem quite ordinary to myself,” he said. “The things I impart to my children – be the best behaved, the most polite and the most hardworking. Those are pretty ordinary values, aren't they?”
That doesn't mean his life has been easy.
Today, Butt spends most of his time in New Delhi with his wife and two small daughters. He says he sees himself as a "normal bloke," but that doesn't mean his life has been easy.
Militants area apt to take his white skin and English heritage as evidence he's a foreign spy. A media center in a madrasa where Butt worked in 2010 was burned to the ground. And Butt himself was showered with glass when a bomb exploded next to his house in Kabul in 2009.
But where tales of “American Taliban” raise fears of the radicalization of converts, Butt's long career tells a story of how greater understanding and acceptance can achieve a moderating influence on the Pashtuns.
The reach of radio
Butt's "New Home, New Life" show competed with the Taliban's nightly screeds, but with as many as 35 million avid fans, it was too popular to be shut down.
"I believe that one of the reasons the Taliban didn't ban radio was because of 'New Home, New Life,'" Shirazuddin Siddiqi, a former drama teacher at Kabul University who worked on the program, told the Guardian in 2001. "All the soldiers were addicted to it.”
Widely hailed for its moderating influence on the Taliban prior to 2001, the program might have had a greater impact if Butt had been granted free rein.
Following his general strategy of using his knowledge of Islamic law and Pashtun customs to combat radical influence, Butt's team considered a storyline that would address whether providing refuge to foreign militants was truly mandated by tribal traditions.
In the end, they opted not to take on the radicals so directly, and Butt still wonders whether the Taliban would have protected Osama bin Laden if they'd had a sound cultural and theological argument for turning him over.
“We're trying to look at these things from the point of view of their own traditions,” Butt said.
“Traditionally, the Pashtuns do give refuge to outlaws.... But you can't internationalize that. [And] the outlaw has to live a law-abiding life. These guys are using your hospitality as a base to cause trouble left, right and center.”
Though Butt left the BBC in 1998 , “New Home, New Life” is still running. The BBC launched a spinoff in 2009 called “Old City, New Dreams” that targeted new migrants to Afghanistan's urban centers.
A local FM station called “Nari Radio” has taken up thorny issues like hospitality for foreign militants, with a call-in debate show that gives Afghans a chance to spar with American commanders in the region.
And Butt himself — who moved out of Swat valley in 2010 when his house was washed away by floods — has pushed forward with a radio station, and several syndicated programs, of his own.
Now based in Jalalabad, his radio station, PACT — originally an acronym for “Pak/Afghan Cross-border Radio Training and Production — goes beyond providing a broadcasting alternative to the message of the militants like similar BBC or Radio Free Asia projects.
PACT Radio trains and employs young men and — importantly — women to work as independent journalists in the troubled region.
Currently, PACT has a network of more than 150 reporters on both sides of the border, where they not only gather and report the news for its syndicated programs, but also provide a forum for ordinary people to share their stories, examine the region's problems and suggest solutions.
Beyond the airwaves
The Jalaabad-based Islamic Vocational Academy (IVA) that Butt started in 2009 now provides job training and a possible bridge to higher education for madrasa graduates who would otherwise face a future of unemployment and isolation. With a current batch of around 200 students, the academy provides instruction in journalism and mass communications, as well as Islamic herbal medicine.
Many graduates will get their first job experience at the school's “Morning Star Radio” station in Jalalabad — whether in the station's marketing department or on the air. And Butt is working with universities such as New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia, which presently accepts students from Indian madrasas, to adopt his curriculum.
“Everybody is working toward the same thing,” said Butt. “The Pashto-speaking masses want exactly the same thing as the international community wants — they want education, they want health, they want a better life.”
IVA's course of study is hardly the mass-com syllabus offered at American, or even Indian, colleges. To reach students accustomed to rote learning and an absolute adherence to authoritative religious texts, the courses use familiar material, such as the methodology by which ancient imams authenticated the Prophet Muhammad's sayings in the Hadith, to help them understand and assimilate foreign concepts such as sifting facts from rumor and juggling on-the-record and anonymous sources.
There is more than a little of the madrasa in the academy's soul.
“It's preparing a person for working in the community — it's a lot of democracy studies, peace studies, critical thinking,” said Butt. “It's all the facilities in the modern world that allow Islamic scholars to make a positive contribution to the community.
Studies in what Butt calls “Islamic outreach” take up as much as half the students' time, as the faculty attempts to reconcile the life of the Islamic scholar with the challenges of militancy and modernization. And that as often means bending and shaping modern concepts and institutions as it does assimilation — with the academy advocating Islam's charity-based financial system as an alternative to debt- and interest-based capitalism and “taking responsibility” versus the West's unfettered freedom of speech when it comes to the media.
“I'm trying to get them to think of Islam in the modern context, and as a relevant alternative in the modern age,” said Butt. “That means spiritually in particular, perhaps, but also as far as family values are concerned, as far as the economy is concerned, and as far as the media is concerned.”