After his return to Afghanistan from exile, in 1986, Azizullah Royesh immediately became a tireless advocate of education as a bridge over the divisions that have made his country a battleground for decades, David Jolly writes for The New York Times:
Mr. Royesh has been hailed at home and internationally for his work at Marefat High School, his innovative school where girls make up almost half of the student population. He champions schooling as a way into the professional and governing class for Afghan minorities — and particularly for his fellow Hazaras, a mostly Shiite ethnic minority that suffered heavily under the Taliban regime….. In 2012, Marefat was … attacked, accused of being pagan and anti-Islamic. The national council of clerics issued a fatwa attacking it, and the Ministry of Education responded by demanding that Mr. Royesh’s civic education courses be dropped. But the National Endowment for Democracy agreed to give money to establish Marefat Radio, which broadcasts the course content for four hours a day.
“The Hazaras feel themselves defenseless against the threat facing them,” Mr. Royesh said, pointing to the recent beheadings in the southern province of Zabul of seven Shiite Hazaras, including a 9-year-old girl, by militants linked to the Islamic State.
This week’s deadly Taliban attack on a bus carrying employees of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s biggest TV station, also highlighted the continuing threats to civil society, freedom of speech, and the fragile media sector.
Royesh has received international recognition for his work, including numerous awards and fellowships [including a Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the NED]. He was a finalist in 2015 for the Global Teacher prize, an award given by the Varkey Foundation, The Times adds:
Not bad for someone who never got beyond the fifth grade. The Soviet invasion in 1979 ended Mr. Royesh’s formal education when he was 10 years old. His father sent him to Quetta, Pakistan, in 1982 to escape deadly Russian airstrikes on the family’s home village, Talkhak — which means “bitter.”….Such a childhood sounds fraught, but Mr. Royesh said he looks back on it with pleasure, noting that he encountered many Afghan intellectuals who had fled the Soviets. He was able to explore the new bookstores that were popping up in Quetta, an introduction to a rich life of the mind……
Mr. Royesh said that he read the literature of resistance and freedom: Steinbeck, Che Guevara, Gorky, Howard Fast (author of “Spartacus”). He was also intoxicated by the strong current of leftist thought unleashed by the Iranian revolution, including the works of Ali Shariati, whose writings have drawn comparisons to the Latin American liberation theology movement.
“That gave me a liberal-minded approach to interpreting Islam, as well,” he said.
“The new Afghanistan needed a new system of values, and that couldn’t be achieved without an education to instill democratic ideals,” Mr. Royesh said. “If, in 2001 and 2002, we had focused on a revised education system based on democracy and human rights, we’d have a completely different context here today.”
“We now have literate people, we have educated people,” he added. “But very few of them are really equipped with a democratic mind-set. Civic education was the missing link.”