The Cambridge chaplain fighting fanaticism by radio in Pakistan's Swat valley
When residents of the lush mountain glades of Pakistan's Swat valley turn on their radios each evening, the harsh commands of Islamic extremists blare from the speakers. By Angus McDowall 21 Feb 2009
Militant broadcasters, whose followers have all but wrenched the area from Pakistani government control, use the airwaves as a bully pulpit, announcing the names of people they have killed.
For listeners who do not share their dream of turning the area into a Taliban mini-state, however, there is an alternative setting for the dial: courtesy of a local DJ whose more natural audience might be the well-heeled commuters of his native Surrey.
John Butt, a Cambridge University chaplain who was brought up in the affluent suburb of Walton-on-Thames, first set foot in Swat after arriving from neighbouring Afghanistan in 1969, when the area was a popular stop on the Asian hippy trail.
Charmed by the valley's rugged beauty and the simple lifestyle of its people, he converted to Islam, trained as a mullah, and has lived there ever since.
Facing the prospect of his adopted homeland being wrecked by the weapons of religious fanatics, he has fought back by setting up his own radio station dedicated to countering the militants' extremist message. The station - a current affairs and discussion broadcast which he describes as the local answer to BBC Radio's Five Live - offers more traditional and moderate interpretations of the Koran.
"It is a Five Live for the border region," said Mr Butt, 58, referring to the long, mountainous Pakistan-Afghan frontier. "The radicals use radio as a method to propagate militancy, But in fact the theology on which they base their arguments is quite shallow. As far as tradition is concerned, they don't have a strong case."
Once known as the "Switzerland of the Himalayas" for its ski resorts, grand mountain views, lush pine forests and turquoise lakes, Swat has been over-run in recent years by militants from Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
Last week the Pakistani government agreed to let the militants impose Islamic law on Swat in return for a cease fire with the 20,000 government troops who have tried and failed to quell the insurgency.
The deal - which is also likely to involve an amnesty for the extremists responsible for a wave of bombings and murders - has drawn criticism from the West, with the American government saying it was worried about "a surrender" to the Taliban.
Mr Butt, who wears the traditional long robes and skull cap of a south Asian mullah, also fears the arrival of a warped form of Sharia heavily reliant on corporal punishment.
"For Sharia to be implemented properly, you need theologians, jurists, thinkers and judges to come up with a complete system," he said. "But there's a danger that they will simply introducing floggings. As a theologian and a citizen, I worry about that."
Mr Butt says much of the blame lies with the Pakistani army, whom he claims used heavy handed tactics in their efforts to fight the militants. The brunt of the recent fighting has fallen on the shoulders of civilians - the Taliban has bombed girls' schools and the government forces have shelled villages suspected of harbouring militants.
When he last took the long drive through the valley, Mr Butt came upon the scene of a devastated village. "Women were crying on the side of the road, besides themselves with anguish and grief," he said. "They told me that if they refuse to shelter militants they will be attacked. If they accept, the government will target them."
He also points to the West's role in the origins of the conflict by encouraging the foreign radicals who flooded into Afghanistan in the 1980s to wage jihad against the Soviet Union.
Mr Butt, who spends part of his year as the Muslim chaplain of Cambridge University, studied for 13 years of at the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, the most influential Muslim seminary in south Asia. He set up the Pact radio station in 2004, staffed by local reporters he trained himself, to help disseminate the views of local people.
His programmes argue that the superficial - and dangerous - ideas preached by militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a deviation from the more profound message of Islam.
To reinforce these points, Mr Butt has tried to recruit reporters from local madrassahs because students with a strict religious training are better equipped to rebut extremism. One man who can attest to the dire conditions that now prevail in Swat is Waqar Ahmad Khan, a local politician whose brother and two nephews were murdered by the Taliban.
"Armed men surrounded my brother's house at night," he said. "They found my two nephews and shot them in front of my brother. Then they shot him and the servants and destroyed the house." Mr Khan faces the wrath of the Taliban himself: he is one of 45 men who have been ordered by them to stand before a religious court or face death. He has so far declined their offer.
But he is standing against a movement in the ascendency. The Taliban are able to play on local grievances about the state of secular justice - the corruption of the police, the bureaucratic inertia of the courts, and the heavy-handedness of the army. He said a recent army offensive had killed more than 1,200 civilians but little over 100 Taliban.
"The militants used the name of Islam and the common people extended their support in the hope that they would get easy and speedy justice," said Mr Khan. "I myself am a supporter of Sharia, but Sharia does not allow the killing of innocent people."
Enjoying better access to the villages and mosques than any other Westerner, Mr Butt has come to believe that the West has committed a serious strategic blunder in the fight against extremists.
For the proud mountain people of the border region, the vendetta is a central element of personal honour - and is now being turned against the West. "One big reason is that the West wants to solve problems by force," he said. "They create 100 enemies every time they kill 10 people with an air strike aimed at one militant."
As President Barack Obama orders another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, he fears the war will be escalated. And while Mr Butt and his colleagues have so far escaped threats from the Taliban, he admits that the situation has deteriorated - creating a far more dangerous working environment.
"Our programmes were making a difference and grew very popular," said Mr Butt. "But with things the way they have been recently, it was like standing in the face of a torrent. It's very hard to say we're making a difference - but I think we are making a start on making a difference."
23 febbraio 2009
L'Imam di Cambridge spiega la tolleranza nello Swat
Oggi il quotidiano inglese Telegraph riporta dal Pakistan la curiosa storia di John Butt, uno dei cappellani di Cambridge. Contrariamente a quanto si potrebbe pensare Butt è un cappellano di religione musulmana. La sua conversione risale alla fine degli anni '60, durante uno dei classici viaggi che i giovani ribelli di mezza Europa facevano in India. Lui veniva dall'Afghanistan e aveva traversato il confine nella regione della valle dello Swat, oggi teatro di aspri contrasti e combattimenti tra le forze governative pakistane e le tribù di ribelli vicini alle posizioni dei talebani. In questi giorni Islamabad è riuscita a stabilire una tregua nello Swat ma gli abitanti della zona continuano ad ascoltare gli incitamenti oltranzisti diffusi attraverso le radioline FM dai capi dei fanatici religiosi.
Quando arrivò qui Butt oltre a convertirsi decise anche di studiare per diventare Imam e con gli anni si è conquistato molto seguito. Tanto da aver pensato di fondarla lui, una stazione radio, una voce capace di diffondere in quella zona una interpretazione più moderata del Corano, un messaggio che potesse far capire che la religione non è per forza estremismo e guerra continua. La stazione si chiama Pact Radio e diffonde dal 2004. Ha anche un sito Web dove si trovano molte informazioni e vengono proposte soluzioni "alternative" per la risoluzioni di un conflitto che alla fine della giornata si ripercuote solo sui poveri abitanti di quella che era considerata la "Svizzera" pakistana, presi regolarmente tra due fuochi.