My friend, the former Muslim extremist

Published: February 21, 2016
Rafiullah Kakar was radicalised in high school in Pakistan but later rejected those beliefs. He now lives in London, writing for newspapers in Pakistan, where he eventually plans to enter politics. PHOTO: NYT

Rafiullah Kakar was radicalised in high school in Pakistan but later rejected those beliefs. He now lives in London, writing for newspapers in Pakistan, where he eventually plans to enter politics. PHOTO: NYT

Whenever a Muslim carries out a terror attack in the West, the question arises: Why do they hate us?

Provocative answers come from my friend Rafiullah Kakar, who has lived a more astonishing life than almost anyone I know. Rafi is a young Pakistani who used to hate the United States and support the Taliban. His brother joined the Taliban for a time, but now I worry that the Taliban might try to kill Rafi, ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rooting out extremism

One of 13 children, Rafi is a Pashtun who grew up in a mud home close to the Afghan border, in an area notorious for tribal feuds and violent clashes. His parents are illiterate farmers, and it looked as if Rafi’s education would end in the fifth grade, when he was sent to a madrasa. His mom wanted him to become a hafiz.

“One reason people send kids to madrasa is that a hafiz can get to paradise and take 10 other people along,” Rafi notes, explaining a local belief about getting to heaven. “My mother wanted me to be a hafiz, so I could be her ticket to paradise.”

Ultimately, Rafi’s life was transformed because his eldest brother, Akhtar, pinched pennies and sent Rafi to the best public school in the family’s home province, Balochistan. Rafi had an outstanding mind and rocketed to the top of his class. But he also fell under the spell of political Islam. A charismatic Islamic studies teacher turned Rafi into a Taliban sympathiser who despised the West.

“I subscribed to conspiracy theories that 9/11 was done by the Americans themselves, that there were 4,000 Jews who were absent from work that day,” Rafi recalls. “I thought the Taliban were freedom fighters.”

I’ve often written about education as an antidote to extremism. But in Pakistan, it was high school that radicalised Rafi. “Education can be a problem,” Rafi says dryly.

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He’s right. It’s possible to be too glib about the impact of education. Osama bin Laden was an engineer. Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of al Qaeda, is a trilingual surgeon. Rafi notes that Pakistani doctors or engineers are sometimes extremists because in that country’s specialised education system they gain the confidence of a university degree without the critical thinking that (ideally) comes from an acquaintance with the liberal arts.

Donor countries should support education, Rafi says, but pay far more attention to the curriculum. I think he’s right, and we should also put more pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia to stop financing extremist madrasas in poor countries in Africa and Asia.

We should also invest in girls’ education, for it changes entire societies. Educated women have fewer children, which reduces the youth bulge in a population, one of the factors that correlates most strongly to terrorism and war. And educating girls changes boys. Ones like Rafi.

When Rafi attended college in the city of Lahore, he encountered educated women for the first time. Previously, he had assumed that girls have second-rate minds, and that educated women have loose morals.

“I’d never interacted with a woman,” he said. “Then in college there were these talented, outspoken women in class. It was a shock.” It was part of an intellectual journey that led Rafi to become a passionate advocate for girls’ education, including in his own family. His oldest sisters are illiterate, but his youngest sister is bound for college.

Rafi won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Augustana College in South Dakota, an experience that left him more understanding of the United States, though still exasperated at many American policies. After college he won a Rhodes scholarship, and last year he completed graduate studies at Oxford.

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He’s now in London, writing for Pakistani newspapers, and he plans to return to Pakistan to start a boarding school for poor children in Balochistan, and ultimately to enter politics, if the Taliban don’t get him on a return trip to his village.

Today Rafi is a voice against the Taliban, against conspiracy theories and against blind anti-Americanism, in part because the United States did not take Donald Trump’s advice to ban Muslims. Extremist American voices like Trump’s, Rafi says, empower extremist voices throughout the Islamic world.

“It’s people like Donald Trump who are put forward by the extremists back home,” Rafi told me. “It pours cold water on us.”

To fight terrorism, the West spends billions of dollars on drones, missiles and foreign bases. Yet we neglect education and the empowerment of women, which if done right can be even more transformative. The trade-offs are striking: For the cost of deploying one soldier for a year, we could start more than 20 schools.

Rafi teaches us that a book can be a more powerful force against extremism than a drone. But it has to be the right book!

This article originally appeared on the International New York Times, a global partner of The Express Tribune.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Mian
    Feb 21, 2016 - 7:46PM

    So Malala is right, ‘one book, one pen, one teacher can change the world.’ There is a dire need to work in backward areas like in Baluchistan , FATA and KP-K. These areas lag behind education wise and when the population of these areas come in contact with more developed and progressive areas like Lahore or Karachi, they either refuse to assimilate with them or undergo transformation like this gentleman. It’s time we should wake up and try to bring these areas into the mainstream.Recommend

  • bilal habib
    Feb 21, 2016 - 8:53PM

    Kakar Sb, plz don’t come back. We don’t want another Junaid Hafeez in the making. This nation does not need scholars and intellectuals.Recommend

  • Parvez
    Feb 22, 2016 - 12:40AM

    On the same subject its worth reading Ed Husain’s ‘ The Islamist ‘.Recommend

  • Ray
    Feb 22, 2016 - 1:07AM

    Finally a voice of reason …In Pakistan even the most educated think like illiterates…education is not just memorizing books…but understanding things and doing critical thinking …that doesn’t exists and only hearsay and fatwasRecommend

  • Asad Mahmud
    Feb 22, 2016 - 2:18AM

    This is an extremely inspirational story and resonates with many Pakistanis from lower middle class who have gone through similar transformations. Along with the shift along ideological lines, I wish the author had divulged more on the class issue that makes it a truly remarkable achievement for someone to make it to Oxford from such a humble background. Also, I admire the uprightness of the stance on drones and American policies that strike the right balance when it comes to criticising the western imperialism and the savagery of the Taliban and their ilk. Recommend

  • ajeet
    Feb 22, 2016 - 5:41AM

    So before Trump, the religion of peace was all peaceful? Trump and Modi are the products of perfidy of the religion of peace.Recommend

  • Lost
    Feb 22, 2016 - 9:09AM

    I don’t get it, opinions that a guy held for a while, but never acted upon don’t make a person extremist. Billions of people around the globe books divergent views. 80% of people in Pakistan have negative views about America, many of them educated. Holding a view, changing a view is a regular dau to day thing for everyone. Yes, his ascend from a small town to get advanced education is a story. Unnecessary twist added to the storyRecommend

  • upchuck
    Mar 17, 2016 - 2:09AM

    Has this been printed in Urdu – doubt it.Recommend

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