The headline on the National Catholic Register story is simple and timely: “Trapped by the Taliban, Praying for Escape from Afghanistan.” But it is not a headline you’ll find in most media.
The reporting is simple, as well, as long as the journalists involved have established contacts with people inside Kabul who have smartphones and there are functioning cell towers and satellites. The story is built on people describing what they claim is going on around them, especially events affecting their families and friends.
These people are U.S. citizens, Afghans with U.S. green cards and others who cooperated with Western governments and agencies — including religious groups — during the 20 years of “nation building” in the war-torn land of Afghanistan.
The question is whether the contents of this story remain newsworthy, since Afghanistan has, for now, moved off the front burner in elite newsrooms. What happened? Clearly, Republicans and centrist Democrats had pounced on the topic while blasting President Joe Biden and his White House team.
But is this NCR piece news? Yes, it is. Also, this is a story journalists can study while looking for clues about realities — and news — at ground level in the Taliban’s new-old Afghanistan. Here is the overture:
“For two decades, Sher Shah had worked alongside U.S. and Afghans to build a democratic country free from the Taliban and war. He had established a new life with his family in the U.S. with the help of Catholic Charities and a Catholic sponsor family, but briefly returned to Afghanistan this summer to attend his father’s funeral.
Now, he’s a man trying to escape the Taliban and get back home to the U.S.”
More? Here is a claim — let me stress this is a CLAIM — coming from this source. But the Register report has other credible anonymous voices making similar statements in what appear to be telephone interviews or contacts via email.
“U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has stated approximately 100 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents remain in Afghanistan. …
But Sher Shah said he has heard nothing from the State Department since Aug. 26 — and he made use of the State Department’s information posted on its website for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents stuck in Afghanistan.
‘There are thousands of Americans still in Afghanistan,’ he said. ‘And I’m one of them.’”
The reality that emerges — in this story and others — is that the United States and other Western forces were not engaged in 20 years of nation building, as in building an Afghanistan government that looked to the nation’s past — its monarchy, for example. It would be more accurate to say the goal was building a new culture, one that incorporated elements of modernity and even postmodernity in America and Europe.
Thus, it would help journalists to think more about culture and less about pure politics when covering the new Taliban kingdom. Of course, the line between culture and religion is nonexistent, in this case.
From the point of view of the Taliban, Afghanistan needed to be rescued from this cultural invasion.
When it comes to some elements of modern life in the West — consider the LGBTQ pride flag at the U.S. embassy in Kabul during its final weeks — there are other religious leaders who would sound warnings about culture building.
The month of June is recognized as (LGBTI) Pride Month. The United States respects the dignity & equality of LGBTI people & celebrates their contributions to the society. We remain committed to supporting civil rights of minorities, including LGBTI persons. #Pride2021 #PrideMonth pic.twitter.com/qgKPQAPaOY
— U.S. Embassy Kabul (@USEmbassyKabul) June 2, 2021
Not all of them are stereotypical conservatives. Consider this famous passage from a 2016 World Youth Day address by Pope Francis:
“This is ideological colonization. They introduce an idea to the people that has nothing to do with the people. With groups of people yes, but not with the people. And they colonize the people with an idea which changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure … certain loans in exchange for certain conditions. … Why do I say ‘ideological colonization’? Because they take, they actually take the need of a people to seize an opportunity to enter and grow strong — through the children.”
Viewed through the narrow lens of Taliban doctrine, it doesn’t matter if Western governments were forcing open doors for the work of Planned Parenthood or Christian missionary/relief groups, the work of LGBTQ think tanks — or the American corporations that back them — or Islamic thinkers and clerics whose approach to the faith clashed with their own.
Nation building certainly sounds more noble than colonization, even if the humanitarian and cultural efforts were backed by billions of dollars from the U.S. government, Western nongovernmental organizations, corporations, elite academic institutions, etc.
What are some of the essential stories to cover, linked to tensions between the Taliban and the ruins of the culture offered by the U.S.?
* The press has, with good cause, focused on the plight of women — liberal, moderate Muslims, etc. — who erased some of the lines drawn by the Taliban’s form of Islam. See this Washington Post report: “Space for dissent opened in Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted 20 years ago. Now the militants are trying to slam it shut.” But there are other stories to tell about Afghan women. Hold that thought.
* There are, of course, hundreds or thousands of Afghans who were directly linked to U.S. projects in business, academia, the military and technology. This includes some Americans who have chosen to remain in Afghanistan. A key story: The Taliban urgently needs financial and technical help, since the infrastructure of their nation has changed in the past two decades. Will they cut all ties to the West and turn to China?
* As noted in this Associated Press report — “Afghan media brace for what’s next under Taliban rule” — the nation’s media infrastructure has changed in the past two decades. How long will the Taliban tolerate media that cover intolerance?
* What about the nation’s small, but active, Christian community — including growing numbers of converts? Reports of threats and murders have circulated on social media, but someone needs to do solid, sourced reporting on this topic. What about missionaries and relief group workers who remain in Afghanistan?
* What will happen to the Muslim clerics and believers who cooperated with the U.S.-backed government over the past 20 years? Journalists should remember — see this book: “Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide” — that moderate Muslims and members of Islamic-linked sects are often the first targets of Islamist rage. Remember: Attacking blasphemy laws is blasphemy.
* American diplomats, academics and business leaders encouraged the LGBTQ community that was living in the shadows of Afghanistan. What happens now, especially to the leaders and volunteers at Western-style think tanks, schools and support groups created in the last 20 years? Will journalists cover the fallout from this part of the culture-building project? See this Deutsche Welle headline: “LGBTQ people fear for their lives under Taliban rule.”
Also, consider the facts in this Spectator commentary: “Did ‘gender studies’ lose Afghanistan? How Ivy League diplomats sought to remake Afghanistan in Harvard’s image.” How did Afghan women respond to a class in which they were shown Marcel Duchamp’s famous modern art urinal and told that it represented truths about gender in their land and lives?
In conclusion, it will also be important to note that — especially in rural Afghanistan — the return of the Taliban was welcomed, in part because this brought the return of familiar customs and local leaders who were, to some degree, less corrupt than the tribal lords who backed the modern government.
Many Afghans — women in particular — simply wanted the fighting to stop. Consider this story at The New Yorker:
“The Other Afghan Women
In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them.”
This passage will illustrate this final point:
“When I asked Shakira and other women from the valley to reflect on Taliban rule, they were unwilling to judge the movement against some universal standard — only against what had come before. ‘They were softer,’ Pazaro, the woman who lived in a neighboring village, said. ‘They were dealing with us respectfully.’ The women described their lives under the Taliban as identical to their lives under Dado and the mujahideen — minus the strangers barging through the doors at night, the deadly checkpoints.
Shakira recounted to me a newfound serenity: quiet mornings with steaming green tea and naan bread, summer evenings on the rooftop.”
What matters most in this remarkable piece of reporting by Anand Gopal — politics or culture? Modern gender theories or centuries of religious traditions?