My friend, the former Muslim extremist — Nicholas Kristof
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FEBRUARY 22 — 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.
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, someone who has memorized the entire Quran.
“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 sympathizer 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.
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 U.S. policies. After college he won a Rhodes scholarship, and last year he completed graduate studies at Oxford.
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 Islamic 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! — The New York Times
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.