The debris is everywhere you look—except, thank God, for the runway. As the Ariana Airlines jet approaches the airport in Kabul, four American scholars see that the place is littered with old missile shells and wrecked airplanes. "Later I find out that they can't clean up this debris because the ground is still filled with land mines," professor Teri McCarthy, one of the passengers, tells Christianity Today.
Mines kill between 40 and 100 Afghans a week in the rugged, mountainous Asian country. In the land still bleeding from 25 years of cruelty, an average person's life expectancy is 47 years. Afghanistan's infrastructure is in shambles: buildings lay in ruin; there's no central heating for cold winters; warlords are gaining power; local mafias grow opium, which supplies 80 to 90 percent of the heroin consumed in Europe.
But this literal ruin fades compared to a more damaging waste—that of Afghans' intellect and spirit. Only 21 percent of women, and 51 percent of men, can read. UNICEF reports that more than 85 percent of Afghans have never been to school. Many people are homeless. A phone line or Internet access is a sign of opulence. Only 4 percent of Afghanistan's university professors have doctorates. The nation defiled by thugs and bigots is on the verge of insanity, and its mind must be saved.
Afghan Minister of Higher Education Sherief Fayez, who earned his doctorate on Walt Whitman in the U.S., knows this. As the ministry of education website says, the oppressive rulers have turned schools into "centers for ideological extremism, sloganeering, and fermenting discord and conflict." But the ministry wants Afghan colleges and universities to become communities of "scholarly integrity, academic freedom, research and teaching excellence, and personal and intellectual growth."
The Spirit of God, it seems, saw this as an opportunity, convincing McCarthy and her three colleagues to fly to Kabul last March.
As soon as Fayez took office in 2001, he asked educators worldwide to help him take Afghan university professors—40 percent of whom are homeless and most of whom haven't had training for 25 years—into the 21st century. McCarthy decided to help, along with her husband, Daryl (CEO of the International Institute for Christian Studies) and two other members of the IICS team, Terry Mitchell and Hallet Hullinger.
Helping Fayez fit well with IICS's mission. The group sends Christian scholars to live out the gospel by teaching at secular universities worldwide. IICS was the first and, for a long time, the only organization that accepted Fayez's invitation. They stayed at a bullet-riddled hotel at a time when U.S. citizens were advised not to travel to the 98 percent Muslim country.
On the day when the U.S. started bombing Iraq, the four showed up in the classroom despite U.N. warnings to stay put at their hotel. That "turned some hearts," says Mitchell. This was not lost on Fayez: "You are the first ones to come to help us," he told them. "And you came at your own expense at such a critical time, when others were canceling their visits to this country."
For two weeks (an unusually short stint for IICS), the McCarthys, Mitchell, and Hullinger trained 120 faculty—including 35 women who had been under house arrest for six years under the Taliban—from the University of Education and Kabul University.
In a remarkable twist, the seminars took place in the building of the University of Education. If its walls could talk! First the building housed a Marxist think tank for the Soviets. Then a school for radical Islamic leaders moved in. Most recently it was a Taliban training center in which Osama bin Laden himself taught his followers.
Following the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban, a radical Islamic school wanted to take over the building. But the progressive-thinking Fayez had other plans. He told 30 educators to occupy the building. "They took it by squatters' rights," says Mitchell. President Hamid Karzai later teased Fayez about this, saying, "How did you accomplish this—setting aside a radical Muslim university to establish an education university? I didn't know you were an occupier, an invader." The difference between Karzai and the leaders who came before him is this: Karzai is joking; others would have been dead serious when uttering the same words.
In March 2003, the University of Education still had "no running water, no telephones, no electricity," McCarthy said. The walls were marked with bullet holes. "There is a crater in one of the hallways from a rocket-propelled grenade," says Mitchell. Some of the windows were blown out. The classrooms were not heated, so both the American lecturers and the Afghan professors left their coats on inside.
The teachers, and their students, lack basic supplies—books, pens, paper, black and whiteboards, chalk, markers. Don't even mention laboratory equipment or computers.
But more than they need basic supplies, the Afghan professors need to know that they can educate a generation of ethical men and women. How do you begin instilling this wild ambition in them, especially when their nation has been ravaged by violence?
You remind them that they're made in the image of God, something that both the Qur'an and the Bible affirm. IICS conveyed this truth as it taught educational philosophy, curriculum development, learning styles, the student-centered classroom, and the university system of academic credit. "We kept what's good in their culture and added what's worked for us," designing a model for Afghan higher education, says McCarthy.
The Afghan professors were so moved when McCarthy told them that they were "the agents of healing for your culture and society" that they burst into tears. "Is there hope for Afghanistan?" they asked.
McCarthy then told them about the time she brought out a bag of candy to street kids and one boy grabbed all the candy. It took one disapproving look from her for the boy to begin giving all of the candy to the other children, with none left for himself.
Hearing her account, the professors "started crying and couldn't recover." The boy's instinctive selfishness was to them a picture of their own hearts, hardened by war. McCarthy summarized what they expressed in a form of public repentance: "We have become so uncivilized and so hardened just to survive against war, oppression, and religious abuse." But what touched them the most was that the war hadn't erased the boy's sense of right and wrong. That's hope.
Competent and Honest
At a time when U.S. media from Mother Jones to Beliefnet decry the supposed "deceptiveness" of Christian tentmakers, IICS is a stellar example of what businessman and author Bill Diehl calls "the ministry of competence."
The group is very picky about its candidates' credentials (a graduate degree is a must), experience, and Christian witness. Only one of 10 applicants gets accepted. When Communist countries ask CEO Daryl McCarthy for teachers, he says something like this:
"You want experienced, hard-working, ethical professionals? We'll get them for you. In fact, IICS is so particular that we make sure that every one of them is a Christian." Says McCarthy: "It's fun to hear the foreign officials say, 'Ah, yes, very good. That's what we need.' "
During this academic semester, 28 IICS faculty are working full time at universities and colleges worldwide, with 80 expected in two years. Most of them reside at universities for one or more years. Here are just two examples of what they do: At the request of Nigeria's president, founder of IICS Danny McCain developed a faith-based AIDS awareness program for every secondary school in Nigeria. Ron Rice, who first drew IICS's attention to Fayez's plea, is working with McCain on developing manuals for Christian religion teachers in Nigeria's public schools.
Other IICS professors teach subjects including law, accounting, mathematics, philosophy, business, ecology, chemistry, and literature in 11 countries. They often sacrifice generous salaries, promotions, savings, and other securities that academics count on in the states. Instead, they get the satisfaction of aiding God as he changes minds, and sometimes souls.
Although they never use the lectern as a pulpit, neither do they apologize for being Christians. When some female Afghan professors asked McCarthy after class about how Jesus compares to Muhammad, it was only natural for her to tell them what she found freeing about the way Jesus treated women.
"None of our professors hides the fact that they are a Christian," Mitchell says. "We do the thing we promise to do, which is to provide quality education." There are two dangers, he says: "If tentmakers never open their mouths, I think that's deceptive. If I simply only use my credentials as an agenda to get me in, so I can start preaching to people, that's false. I don't live two lives. I'm a Christian with five degrees."
If there was any aggressive attempt at conversion during IICS's lectures in Afghanistan, it did not come from the Americans.
Muhammad or Jesus
McCarthy was teaching on student-centered learning when a red-haired professor asked to speak and stood up.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked her.
"I think you know that I believe in God because I talked to you all about treating students with dignity and respect since we're all made in the image of God," she said. "The Qur'an says that."
He got more specific: "Do you believe in the prophet Muhammad?"
McCarthy said, "Anyone would be insane to deny the existence of Muhammad. He's a historical figure; we have records of him. Thank you. Now, moving on …"
The redhead's voice grew louder. "I understand that Muhammad is a historical figure, but do you believe that Muhammad is God's greatest prophet?"
McCarthy, known among her friends for her spunk, said, "I believe that you believe that Muhammad is the prophet of God. And, because of my belief in democracy, I would die to defend your right to believe that. That's why freedom of religion is so important: people's freedom to believe should come from the heart and not be forced by anyone. Okay?"
"No," said the man, asking, "Do you believe in Jesus?"
McCarthy froze, then said, "I do. I love Jesus Christ with all of my heart, my soul, and my strength. I consider him my best friend."
"Say that Muhammad is greater than Jesus!" her student then insisted.
With her knees shaking under her long tunic and images of Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer's imprisonment flashing in her brain, McCarthy listened as the man repeated his demand.
"Do you have a grandmother?" she finally asked.
"Yes, she's dead, but yes," he said.
"If I spoke the words you're asking me to say, it would break my grandmother's heart," McCarthy said. "It would break my family's hearts. I love my family, and I would never do anything that is so dishonoring to them."
A professor in his 80s, to whom the rest of the group looked up, asked to speak.
"Our prophet Muhammad taught us Jesus was a great teacher," he said. "We know that Dr. Teri follows Jesus because she too is a great teacher. The Holy Qur'an teaches us that God hears the earnest and honest person who sincerely seeks him, whether they are in a mosque or a temple or a church."
He then turned to the man demanding what would amount to McCarthy's instantaneous conversion to Islam, and said: "Even Muhammad would not ask her to say that!"
The class broke out in applause, entreating the teacher to write the Qur'an verse on the board. They hurriedly copied down the reference. Bin Laden must have been turning in his grave—or cave, depending on where he is.
IICS likes to point out that the world's most wanted terrorist was once a student, and he too had a favorite teacher. In the September 24, 2001, issue of Time magazine, reporter Lisa Beyer speculated that September 11 might have gone differently had bin Laden "drawn a different teacher for Islamic studies rather than a charismatic Palestinian lecturer who fired his religious fervor." Now, in the very building where bin Laden once taught, freedom of religion was being preached jointly by a Christian and a Muslim.
Perhaps, in that moment, minds and souls of could-be bin Ladens were opened.
Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More CT articles on the country are available on our Afghanistan page.
More education articles are available on our education page.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.