He holds a British passport, sports a glowing beard and wears a skullcap. And, John Butt, the Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University who studied at Darul Uloom Deoband in India, finds the rugged wilds of Pakistan and Afghanistan irresistible.
His mission is taking on the extremists by other means—from running radio programmes to reforming madrasa education. And he wants to create linkages between India and Afghanistan for serving this end.
Butt’s reformist zeal has earned him praises and wrath of the radicals. He is undeterred by the constant threats to his life and divides his time visiting Cambridge, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan—and speaks seven languages including Pashtu, Hindi and Urdu.
1970, perhaps, was the turning point in Butt’s life, when he got disenchanted with Christianity and embraced Islam. “It was a theological attraction,” Butt, 50, tells HT. That attraction lingered on despite he had to do small-time business to earn a living.
“My search for understanding Islam in depth had taken me to Deoband”. And he completed his studies from Darul Uloom, in 1983 helped by a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).
Next six years he translated the Urdu Publication, Al- Risala, in New Delhi, cutting his teeth in journalism.
1991 perhaps changed the course of life for Butt.
He joined the Pashtu service of BBC is that year, and started the soap opera called Across the Border. It was the beginning of a journey that earned him the name “radio mullah.” Masses tuned in, making Butt a household name in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.
The power of radio as a tool for creating awareness and reaching out to people hooked him after his work in Afghanistan and central Asia with the Pak/Afghan Cross-border Radio Training and Production (Pact) project.
Now, he is moving to a bigger challenge—reforming the madrasa education in Afghanistan. Butt started media courses in many madrasas in the region.
Butt is now working for putting in place a modern Islamic university at Jalanabad, eastern part of Afghanistan. The Jami’yat-alUloom al-Islamiya, university will have departments of medicine, business management, media studies, modern languages and vocational training.
Butt says the main aim of the university modernizing the education.
“Now the students from Afghanistan have to outside for religious studies. This university aims to provide them with modern streams of studies along with Islamic studies.” He wants greater linkages between madrasas in India and Afghanistan.
“Before 1947, students from Afghanistan came to India for religious studies. I have spoke of reviving those ties to the officials,” he adds. Pained by the continuing war in Afghanistan, he says the notion that the military is the solution to the problems is wrong.
“There should be peace on the both sides of the border. Then only peace will come to Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. We need to go back to traditional methods of holding peace jirgas (assembly) and sorting out the issues,” he says.
However an element of fatigue shows up during the early morning chat over Indian chai at the Serena hotel in Kabul.
“Being in Afghanistan can be exhausting. It takes a toll on your mind and body,” says Butt who loves Indian vegetarian food.
But that doesn’t mean he will give up.