World Agenda

Last updated: 3 march, 2011 - 14:12 GMT

Interviewing a terrorist target

Imam John Mohammed Butt

Imam John Mohammed Butt

Reporter Nadene Ghouri recounts the many obstacles faced persuading a Western Imam facing death threats from al-Qaeda and the Taliban to be interviewed for the BBC.

John Mohammed Butt is an incredible character whose life reads straight from the pages of a novel.

In his 60 years he’s been a hippie, a hermit, spent 20 years living among the fierce Pashtun tribes who inhabit the Afghan/Pakistan hinterland, become a BBC radio presenter and a fully-fledged Islamic scholar – an Imam.

He spent eight years studying at Darul Uloom Deoband, South Asia’s largest madrassa (educational institution).

To this day he remains the only Western man to have graduated from there.

Virtual seclusion

Plans to record in Pakistan had to be shelved because the threats to his life there had become so great that he couldn’t return.

BBC reporter Nadene Ghouri

The programme, Imam of Peace, took two years from commission to production.

Ten if you count the number of years I have known John – and the amount of time it took to persuade him to let me make a programme about him.

His life of virtual seclusion and prayer makes for a man often socially uncomfortable around others, especially Western women.

He told me at some points in his life he “wondered what a woman might look like, it was so long since he’d seen one”.

John had married a couple of years ago and has a new baby girl – I suspect marriage to a feisty Uzbek woman has softened the edges of this white mullah (religious teacher or leader) and it was she who was instrumental in persuading him to agree to take part in our programme.

Practical problems

But getting John was only the start of the battle.

These days he promotes a form of non-violent ideology across Afghanistan and Pakistan – something that has angered al-Qaeda and the Taliban, turning him into a target.

Usually he travels alone, in secret, telling no one of his plans.

Such is his very real fear of assassination that he cannot risk putting travel plans in an email in case his account is hacked.

Understandable when people are actively targeting you – but life gets tricky when you are trying to set up a radio programme from the other side of the world.

We managed it twice, and twice our production got pulled due to overtaking news events in Pakistan.

Plans unravelling

BBC reporter Nadene Ghouri

BBC reporter Nadene Ghouri

Third time lucky, senior producer Bill Law and I set out from London to meet John in Delhi, and then on to Afghanistan.

Plans to record in Pakistan had to be shelved because the threats to his life there had become so great that he couldn’t return.

We also had to cancel plans to record with John in the Afghan city of Jalalabad due to security concerns.

Our back-up plan was Kabul, but now it was looking like that might also be too unsafe.

I had visions of our well laid plans unravelling before our eyes.

Absence of women

In Delhi we travelled with Jon to Deoband. It was an extraordinary privilege to see inside the gates of a madrassa largely unchanged for 150 years.

The general public are not allowed inside Deoband and even though we were invited, we faced several stares as we walked around, some hostile, some curious.

Mostly they were in my direction. Women are not allowed to study inside the madrassa.

In the day we spent there I saw hundreds of male students but only two females. One was a little girl doing some cooking for the students, the other was a beggar wearing a burqa.

Timely reminder

John Mohammed Butt

John Mohammed Butt

We were granted an audience with the madrassa director but our discussion was a one-way affair.

For a very long hour he lectured us on the perceived evils of Western society and on the bias of the BBC. We gritted our teeth and smiled politely through it.

John likes to see everyone’s point of view: “Oh just ignore him, he’s always a bit like that. He didn’t really mean it.”

This tolerance and ability to turn the other cheek is probably what has kept John alive so far.

He decided it was safe to be with us in Kabul and showed us his memories of old Kabul – the lively bustling city that in the 1960s was a focus for travellers and tourists.

I’ve spent more than ten years reporting from Afghanistan, but to see it through John’s nostalgic eyes was a privilege and a reminder that this war-torn nation was not always this way.

Sense of relief

As we left we got news that John’s Islamic univerisity in Jalalabad had been bombed by militant Islamists.

It was a relief we hadn’t gone to Jalalabad with him as we’d originally hoped.

If he’d been seen out with us then it may have been much worse for him.

As much as we wanted to tell his story, we didn’t want to be responsible for compromising this man’s safety.

Read Nadene’s click Radio 4 blog , click From Our Own Correspondent and listen to click Assignment: The Imam of Peace

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