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Pashtunistan: Meet the other Radio Mullah

Britain's John Mohammed Butt is using his insider's knowledge of Pashtun traditions to fight the radicals.

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.”