When Jason Howk ’00 retired from the military, all he wanted to do was go fishing.
But when he was asked to speak at a local library about his two tours in Afghanistan, all 30 minutes of the question-and-answer segment centered around his understanding of Islam. He was asked to come speak at the library again, this time just about the religion. Then he was asked to speak by another group. Then another. And another.
Shortly after retirement, Howk became one of the most notable Christian-American experts on Islam and the Quran in the world. Since, he’s taught college-level courses, written an award-winning book and even tempered the rhetoric in a speech President Donald Trump gave to a collection of 55 Muslim-majority nations.
Prior to attending Auburn, Howk spent time in the United Arab Emirates training with special forces. But his understanding of Islamic culture and history didn’t come until he was recruited by Gen. Karl Eikenberry to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11. Essentially, they were assisting the Afghani government in building an army from scratch.
“It makes you think of the time of George Washington at Valley Forge,” Howk said. “There was no army, there was no infrastructure – there was nothing. That was a fascinating assignment. I got to learn more in that year than I ever did in my whole life.”
Working with the president of Afghanistan, generals, diplomats and representatives from the United Nations, the year was extremely transformative for Howk. Totally immersed, he lived with Muslims, ate their food and gained an intimate understanding of the culture.
“As a Baptist kid from Vermont and Florida, that wasn’t something that was normal. You don’t just run into somebody who’s Muslim. That really helped me to learn a lot about the religion and culture – the similarities, the differences. You walk away from it with a better understanding of it and a lot of friends in Afghanistan.”
After leaving in 2003, Howk went to graduate school to study Arabic and Farsi. He earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies and South Asia studies before Gen. Stanley McChrystal recruited Howk back to Afghanistan for a year to initiate a reintegration process for a peace plan and help form a review for President Barack Obama.
“I’m considered a ‘half-ghan,’ he said with a laugh. “It’s when you’re not really from Afghanistan, but you’re kind of immersed in the life.”
By this time, Howk had a deep understanding of reconciliation, forgiveness and what the Quran actually says. He finished out his career in the intelligence community, and that’s when “phase two” of his life began.
As his number of speaking engagements increased, Howk realized that he had to require a healthy atmosphere conducive to open exchange of understanding amongst people of all faiths. Speaking to Muslim and non-Muslim groups, he tells his audiences to not take the conversation personally or politically.
Additionally, Howk believes in a different approach to interfaith work. Typically, a Christian explains Christianity, a Jew explains Judaism, a Muslim explains Islam and so on. He’s flipped that formula on its head – and it’s worked.
“Most audiences will actually listen to me and take a moment to think about it like, ‘wait a minute. This guy lived in that culture, and he’s giving us facts. He’s not just giving us opinions or making up things. This is just what he experienced.’”
Howk carried the philosophy into the book “The Quran: A Chronological Modern English Interpretation.” Originally meant to be a PDF for friends in the military to better understand the places they were serving, a publisher approached Howk and said it needed to be made available to the public. Since then, it has won an award for excellence in writing from the Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest and received the Gold Medal from NATIONAL INDIE EXCELLENCE AWARDS.
“I made it readable English. If I had to move a verse up a couple lines or move a verse down so that it flowed in English grammar and it made a paragraph that you can read, then I did that.”
Howk changed the order of particular sermons to read chronologically in order to make the book easy to understand and a quick read for English speakers, as opposed to versions written by translators not as familiar with English.
Writing the book after a number of years giving talks, Howk anticipated the questions a typical American would have after reading the text. He’s even started the podcast “We’re Just Talking About It” to continue the dialogue between faith leaders to translate the understanding to members of all religions.
Recently, Howk was asked to lunch with the president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the continent. At one point in the more than three-hour lunch, Howk explained his background. The president said it was no mistake that Howk is doing what he’s doing.
“He told me, ‘God really chose you for this plan. I mean, you’re a Baptist military officer, and you wander around America explaining Islam to non-Muslims. That doesn’t happen by accident.’ He was very appreciative that I am trying to increase tolerance between religions and just get people to be nicer to each other in general.”
Regardless of a person’s religious view, Howk didn’t choose the past few years of his journey – the journey chose him. Although he assumed he would’ve gone fishing more than the two trips he’s been on in retirement, Howk finds fulfillment in his own niche approach to interfaith work.
“I don’t think this happened by chance. I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of. This is not what I thought I’d be doing in retirement. It’s really taken on a life of its own.”