It was late July 2011, and I was on my way to the most notorious madrassa in the world, Dar -I – Uloom Haqqania, where the attacks on 9/11 were said to have been planned according to the West.
We drove through dusty roads in an old beat up news van, our driver tailgating and blowing his horn repeatedly for no apparent reason, overtaking cars, racing at high speeds towards oncoming traffic, head-on, the van vibrating, and in the last second ripping us back into the safe lane, escaping death by a hair’s breadth.
My colleagues seemed completely nonplussed by this, some even nodding off, but my mind was on one thing; “The Father of the Taliban”, Maulana Sami ul Haq had agreed to meet with me, and was waiting.
I HAD BEEN COACHED BY MY SENIOR PRODUCERS WHO WARNED ME NOT TO MAKE TOO MUCH EYE CONTACT DURING THE INTERVIEW
It was surreal, watching the lush green fields with the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan somewhere off in the distance along that same motorway, we were heading to Akora Khattak, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, my hands sweating and heart pounding, I kept my gaze out of the window taking in the sweet calming breeze of jasmine. Back in Islamabad, I had been coached by my senior producers who warned me not to make too much eye contact during the interview.
The interview was conducted by a translator, so it made it easier to focus on him instead, but it was awkward at first and I was under enormous self- imposed pressure not to be disrespectful in any way. After all, I was in the rarest of situations, I an American female sat across from the Father of the Taliban, our countries both embroiled and in the throes of unrelenting war.
Already my situation was unique, I was working on a documentary for Express News based in Islamabad where I had my own television show, Evening Hour with Kirsten Seymour. This particular documentary was a two-part series with a focus to understand the word, ‘jihad’. It was work, but I had my own reasons for being there. I vehemently opposed the war and searched for a real and true human perspective about what was actually happening, first-hand.
WESTERN MEDIA OFTEN PORTRAYS MUSLIMS AND MORE SPECIFICALLY THE TALIBAN AS BEING “JEALOUS OF OUR FREEDOM”
Western media often portrays Muslims and often more specifically the Taliban as being “jealous of our freedom” especially according to former President George W. Bush who further asserted, “they aim to destroy democracy”. This insinuates to justify war at all costs and by all methods to include inane concepts such as ‘collateral damage’, and seemingly altruistic goals of trying to “win hearts and minds”.
All of these terminologies become increasingly baffling as one digs deeper; the catching phrase, “freedom fighter”, ironically, what Americans during the Cold War called the Taliban/Mujahedin fighters who liberated Afghanistan from Soviet communism, but today is a fight back against the Taliban. “Extremist”, “fundamentalist”, “Islamist”, “terrorist”, “radical” all seem interchangeable so hackneyed is the language that one wonders if anybody is sure what anybody else is even saying anymore.
In my naivete I approached the madrasa, soulful, with purpose, ready to listen, never dreaming it would transpose that it was my mind that was about to be opened, with what Maulana would say.
THE WORD ISLAM ITSELF MEANS PEACE AND I WAS SILENCED ENTERING THE MOSQUE GOING OVER IN MY MIND WHAT THE PLACE REPRESENTS
The word Islam itself means peace and I was silenced entering the mosque going over in my mind what this place represents, the people who once filled this room are the same ones the whole world is now fighting. In the 1980s, one of his students was Mullah Mohammad Omar who later founded the Taliban and began a system of oppression in Afghanistan.
Having passed the young boys in the courtyard, laughing and playing cricket, with stunning, colourful mosaics bedecking the ancient architecture and minarets towering against the azure skies, I couldn’t help but wonder if anybody was taking their innocence and indoctrinating them.
With some trepidation, I took my opportunity to obtain real perspective and respectfully raise seemingly delicate questions. “Struggle” was the simple answer Maulana gave me for the word “jihad”, but he went on, “…not invading other nations, colonial systems stopping an oppressor from cruelty… superpowers overtake smaller nations with their eyes set on natural resources like minerals, petrol and gas. Muslims are trying to defend themselves against that; Muslims are victims of aggression by different powers and yet you attack us and then don’t give us the right to protect ourselves, families and our home.”
MAULANA WENT ON TO EXPLAIN THAT AN INFIDEL IS SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN SHOWN THE FACE OF ALLAH AND REJECTS IT, ITS DEFINITION MEANS LITERALLY, “TO HIDE A BLESSING”.
Maulana went on to explain that an infidel is someone who has been shown the face of Allah and rejects it, its definition means literally, “to hide a blessing”. “If they do not accept Islam, Muslim people will still show you respect and they will always have a peaceful place in our homes and country.”
He said further “Islam doesn’t want confrontation at all, especially about Christianity, if there’s a religion worthy of friendship and sympathy with the Muslims, it’s the Christians. Islam specifically addresses Christians and invites them to join one point that can be a common ground for us that we worship the one true God, which is Allah.”
During the interview, I was reminded about my time growing up back in Texas when I would spend summers with my grandparents out on their little farm. Every morning and night when we sat down at the table, Bobo or Lalee would take out their bible and read scripture from it and then we would pray. They were strict Southern Baptists and had been raised in a generation that was taught black people didn’t have souls. A leftover hatred that is being felt on the streets of America today, though my grandparents admitted to being racists, at least they had really changed that by the time they died.
In August 2011, in an interview with Dr Anis Ahmad of the International Islamic University and Da’wah. Sardar Anis pointed out to me that according to him Christianity has a lot of extremist groups that incite hatred and violence, pointing out as an example David Koresh of the Branch Davidian, a place I had seen and heard about during my early life back in Texas. How close to home that hit.
When I asked Maulana about the Drones programme of the United States he said, “Drones kill our women and children daily, causing mental issues, that is true terrorism.” It had never occurred to me ever that we could be perceived as the terrorists and not them, but in the face of it, it was hard not to acknowledge him this perspective.
To ‘terrorise’ means to frighten, bully, or humiliate, it is therefore hard not to view Drone operations as a form of terrorism when you are an innocent civilian who is just trying to lead a normal daily life.
THE SOLUTION IS FOR SUPERPOWERS TO RECONSIDER POLICIES AND EXTERNAL NEED OF FRIENDSHIP TOWARDS MUSLIMS
Maulana went on to say “America has spent millions making people believe that if they don’t attack Muslims they will perish…they have kept their public in fear…they spread hatred so they can rule them so they can exploit their resources in the name of capitalism…”; “…the solution is for superpowers to reconsider policies and external need of friendship towards Muslims, in no way we will shun that, Muslims do not want to conquer China, Russia the U.S. or the U.K. If America had contented itself after we won against the Russian invasion in Afghanistan and helped us rebuild our hearts, we would have been with them, but instead to our shame they put the debris of the terrorism label and call us Pakistani and Afghan terrorists. We didn’t have tanks or bombs to answer a bomb”.
“With Drones, parent’s bodies are left in tatters, children killed and how can you then question motives behind suicide bombers when American bombs kill thousands of innocent people frequently. What America does is injustice! So suicide bombing is in reaction to our lives that are ruined, homes destroyed and a country we loved that is no more…if a young man with no hope for a future decides to fight then you cannot stop him, that if a child does this, he thinks you are going to kill me in a drone tomorrow, I should put an end to my life today, myself.”
I had recently covered the Swat operation, Rah-e-Rast with the Pakistan Army 2008-9, and flew in in helicopters daily to meet with the Taliban and other groups picked up during the war. They were in de-radicalisation camps and I wanted to know how Maulana felt about this operation and the program, “America wants to kill two birds with one stone and use Pakistan for its own greed. The Pakistan Army teaches against extremism; I want to see a free Afghanistan their people have a right to freedom”.
He went on to say “No Muslim country has ever invaded a western superpower. When we talked about the peace talks, which history has now shown we would do for the next decade, Maulana said, “…we can’t believe America can be serious about such negotiations for peace”.
THE QURAN BEGINS WITH THE WORD, ‘IQRA’, MEANING, TO READ, THAT ALLAH GAVE KNOWLEDGE THROUGH THE PEN, WHICH IS CALLED ‘QALAM’ SO THIS MEANS THE “QALAM” IS THE AXIS OF ISLAM
Near the end of the interview, I presented Maulana with a beaded pen handmade by a little boy I had come to know in the Army’s de-radicalisation camp. Maulana seemed truly moved explaining, “The Quran begins with the word, ‘Iqra’, meaning, to read, that Allah gave knowledge through the pen, which is called ‘qalam’ so this means that “qalam” is the axis of Islam so I am thankful to you that what you have given me is a very precious thing”.
It was the beginning of a decade of meetings and discussions about the bible and the Quran. I began to feel free to ask him anything, without any fear of being judged or of causing offence.
Maulana said as I was finishing the interview “I am impressed by your interest in Islam and its issues…you have done a complete study, and if we had continued to sit together and talk and promote understanding, the fire would never have spread this far.”
After the interview, I was invited to lunch where we were able to continue our discussions in a more relaxed setting.
In the summer of 2017, on my way back from upper Swat where I was shooting my film on Girls education, I stopped off at the Haqqania madrasah to visit Maulana. Upon learning about my film and the project to build girl’s schools, he shared with me that many of the Taliban today believe in equality among the sexes and that in the Quran, girls have a right to education.
By November 2018, I had been getting calls over the past weeks that Maulana wished to see me and was waiting, but I was in lockdown with my two little daughters in the Pearl Continental Hotel, Lahore due to protests over the blasphemy law in the case of Aisa Bibi. From the sink of the bathroom where I was brushing my teeth, I heard the news spewing from the screen. Maulana had been assassinated, stabbed to death repeatedly in his home in Rawalpindi.
Shortly thereafter, Maulana’s grandsons whom I had known for years invited me to visit, when I arrived they had a surprise for me, Maulana had thought about our talk and decided to open an adjacent girl’s madrasah there in the Haqqania and had been waiting to show me it himself. It was sad that I had not made it in time for him to do that, but in death, he left a powerful message to me for the future, one of equality and for peaceful dialogue.
Maulana had been head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam party, twice elected as a member of the Senate, the upper house of Pakistan’s parliament. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party had sought to work closely with the prominent cleric to implement reforms in madrasah education.
I was floored by that very first meeting with Maulana. Few people ever wish to consider themselves as judgemental, but it is truly through dialogue only that one’s own mindset can shift. The “Father of the Taliban” for me was always gentle, respectful and intelligent, but I found his most illuminating quality was that he was totally devoted to peace, to Islam.
HE RESPECTED MY CATHOLICISM AND BELIEFS AND ENCOURAGED ME TO KEEP READING. I BELIEVE HE MADE ME A MUCH BETTER CHRISTIAN THROUGH ISLAM
I personally find some comfort in reflecting on our last conversation after I brought up my belief in angels. He respected my Catholicism and beliefs and encouraged me to keep reading. I believe he made me a much better Christian through Islam. From my further reading, I found the word Angel can also mean Messenger.
Even though he told me he did not share my belief in angels, he left behind a message we should all never forget, “If all come to obey Allah/God on earth and give up on internal disputes, a society of peace and security will naturally emerge.”
This article was originally published on The News Today