Meet the British physicist who ignored Taliban death threats to teach in the badlands of Pakistan

Meet the British physicist who ignored Taliban death threats to teach in the badlands of Pakistan

David Gosling spent four years as principal of University of Peshawar – “When you have education in its totality, it enables our students to see what should be obvious: we are all one”

Imagine the English principal of a famous college on the North West Frontier, a place built by the British and founded by Christians. Inject a few nightmares – Taliban bombs, suicide attacks, the daily slaughter of civilians and children, and bloody US drone attacks on the surrounding countryside – and picture how this teacher nevertheless carries on, trying to instruct the Muslims and Christians in his class in the fundamentals of history, physics and economics. You come up with only one name: David Lagourie Gosling.

Although a Cambridge don and a nuclear physicist, Gosling spent four years running Edwardes College in Peshawar, the capital of what is now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and perhaps the most dangerous city east of Raqqa. The college was founded by the Church Missionary Society in 1900. Gosling received a handwritten, but decidedly ineloquent, death threat from a “Captain Halifah”, which announced: “The principal of Edwardes College is a non-Muslim. God says … that you don’t make friends with non-Muslims … Oh Muslims, wake up! Shake the foundations of non-believers and uplift the name of Islam.”

“Captain Halifah” accused the principal of closing the college before Muslim students had had time to offer prayers. It was untrue. If Gosling did not obey, however, he was threatened with a suicide bomber at the college gates.

The head teacher didn’t give up, even when the college windows were broken by suicide bombers in the neighbourhood, one of whom – a young woman – was identified only when the police found her head.

It is just over a year now since the emir of the Pakistani Taliban, Fazle Hayat (better known as Fazlullah), claimed Taliban responsibility for the massacre at the nearby army school in Peshawar, when gunmen went through the college, shooting down 143 boys, girls and teachers. Gosling had already left Pakistan but, while condemning the atrocity, he recalls how Fazlullah had also called for social equality, more employment and a justice system more efficient than the bureaucratic Pakistani civil law.

How on earth could Gosling account for these almost daily bloodbaths, yet remain dedicated to running a college whose raison d’être was peace between Muslims and Christians? I asked him this question at the end of a year of massacres – far more in the Muslim world than in our own precious Europe, of course. “It’s the outside interference and the historical legacy,” he said. “Even the leaders of the local churches are the legacies of the Raj. There are, at the college, young Muslims and Christians who get on well. It’s the power of education. When you have education in its totality, it enables our students to see what should be obvious: we are all one.”

Gosling came across Fazlullah’s ageing father, Sufi Mohamed, on a prison visit with some of his college students, and he describes this extraordinary meeting in his new book, Frontier of Fear. But since his book does not explain why educated men and women from Europe are going to join Isis, I thought I had better put poor David Gosling through the mill.

“Ah, they may be intelligent, but they are angry,” he replied. “This is an angry people driven by an ideology that is incompatible with education. These energies cannot be channelled in a positive way – which education would want to do. In face-to-face education, you have to engage with people. The internet doesn’t work. Education is travelling with people.” Gosling talked of hypocrisy, of how the world remained virtually silent when 2,000 Palestinians were slaughtered in Gaza but became furious when “a handful” of people were killed on a beach in Tunisia.

I’m not sure this is fair. Yet it is difficult to gainsay Gosling’s contempt for US drone attacks and their civilian casualties, and the “double tap” American missiles that are fired 20 minutes after the initial rocket strikes to kill the rescuers. A US drone strike on a madrassa in Bajaur in 2006 killed 85 Pakistani students, to the fury of the people of the frontier province. A proposed visit by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall to Edwardes College and its principal was immediately cancelled.

The targets of drone attacks come from informers – who may have personal vendettas against the victims, or be coerced into working for the Americans. Gosling received a chilling email from one former Edwardes college student, originally from Waziristan, who sought advice after meeting two Americans who offered him a lot of money to become a male model. Gosling told him to refuse. Then came another email. “They [the Americans] were not from a modelling agency,” the ex-student wrote. “They wanted to hire me for information purposes (spy) and many more in Waziristan …” The rest of the email implied that the two Americans had now threatened him for refusing to co-operate. Gosling has no time for “the robotisation of warfare”, a view shared by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who calls it “gravely counterproductive”.

Lest you think the “enemy at large” is all innocence, however, here is a quotation from a secret report on suicide bombers (sent to Gosling in 2009) by a Pakistani intelligence officer. “After the blast,” it says, “a few associates of the bomber move among the gathered public to deceive them and the security guards by cursing the terrorists. From the exact place of the incident they then remove the [decapitated] head of the bomber and any other clue by which the bomber can be recognised, pretending that they are shocked by the incident. They then disappear into the crowd.”

Gosling, I would say, is lucky to be alive.


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