Cambridge mullah John Butt takes on radicals with radio

Cambridge mullah John Butt takes on radicals with radio
The Sunday Times; December 9, 2007
John Butt, the Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University, has started a radio show broadcast to Afghanistan and Pakistan

Tim Albone in Peshawar
From debating in the cloisters of Cambridge to defying fanatics across the wilds of Pakistan’s North West Frontier province - it could be one man’s journey out of the pages of Rudyard Kipling a century ago.

Yet with his flowing robes, long white beard and skull cap, John Butt, 57, is at the centre of a very modern struggle in Peshawar, the capital of a province amply supplied with guns and religion.

Butt has single-handedly started a groundbreaking radio programme called Across the Border, broadcast over a network of independent stations to listeners in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A public schoolboy and professional broadcaster, a convert to Islam and respected cleric, he has brought his combination of talents to the battle against militants who preach violence in the name of God.

Across the Border uses the voices of ordinary men and women to fight the ignorance that extremists exploit. The formula has won popularity, with one survey showing that 59% of listeners in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar tune in.

“Islamic traditions of hospitality, tolerance, generosity . . . By highlighting such things we try to show that militancy and extremism have no place in true Islamic tradition,” Butt told The Sunday Times.

The programme aims to reach the south and east of Afghanistan, where the insurgency is at its strongest, and the troubled border areas of Pakistan. “We would like it to be a Radio 5 for the region,” added Butt, “a mixture of vox pops, song, drama and reports.”

From his base in Peshawar, Butt directs a team of 35 reporters. He also goes into the field himself and conducts interviews.

The interviews, he says, lead listeners to identify with a problem - such as violence in the name of religion – and its effects on the lives of innocents and thus to its solution, “that people should settle their differences by peaceful discussion rather than shooting each other”.

By using traditional music and interviews with local people, he produces reports that dispel the Taliban’s warped interpretation of Islam. “It is much more effective to have someone local coming out and saying, ‘No, this is wrong’, and them justifying it with Islam than us telling them how they should live - it appeals to them,” Butt said.

“This is a programme that makes people aware; it is based on common people’s problems and their life and, importantly, trying to find solutions.”

Born in Trinidad but brought up in the leafy suburbs of Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, Butt converted to Islam 37 years ago.

His journey from schoolboy at Stonyhurst college to peacemaker and mullah started when he left England as a young hippie in 1969. It was in Afghanistan and Pakistan during Ramadan in the next year that he converted to Islam. Since then he has divided his time between Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Cambridge.

During this period he became a mullah and the Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University, where for two or three weeks every term he returns to lead prayers and guide students.

His ease among the warlike Pashtu people who call the restive border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan home and his acceptance among them have been hard earned. He immersed himself in Islamic study and in 1984 he graduated from the prestigious Darul Uloom Deoband madrasah in India. He remains the only westerner to have done so.

After graduating, he started his career in journalism, eventually working for the BBC and starting a radio soap opera in Afghanistan, loosely based on The Archers, which made him a household name in the war-torn country.

Among his seven languages, Butt is fluent in Pashtu, the language spoken by the Taliban movement and all those who live in the border regions. His familiarity with a tongue few outsiders can speak, and with the customs, the religion and the area has won him a respect among the people enjoyed by few, if any, foreigners.

Butt decided to use his hard-won respect and contacts to tackle the extremism and violence that is blighting the region.

The tool of Butt’s war on religious violence is not the military means of bombs, guns and mortars, but dialogue. “Theologically, Islam answered the questions I had harboured about certain aspects of Christianity - like the divinity of Jesus,” he says. “Socially also, I liked how Islam fitted into everyday life.”

Butt believes in the educational power of radio and after his work in Afghanistan and central Asia he started the Pak/Afghan Cross-border Radio Training and Production (Pact) project, which produces Across the Border, in 2004.

What is so remarkable is that only in the past few months has Butt won funding for the Pact project, after the initial funding ran out over eight months ago. Drawing no salary and unable to pay its staff, the project continued nonetheless. “If I don’t have any money, that’s my problem,” said Shoaib Zada, a 27-year-old producer, explaining his own commitment to the programme in hard times. “But if this radio programme stops it is everyone’s problem.”

Butt says he is not aware of any threats against him, pointing out that everything in the broadcasts conforms to Islam and to local traditions.

“My life in Cambridge is quite sedate and my life here in Peshawar quite turbulent,” he reflects. “Strangely enough, the peace and spiritual fulfilment, for which I came to the East, is now more accessible in Cambridge. Here in the East it is all struggle.”

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