First things first. There is no question that, if and when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, the biggest security issue will be protecting women who have taken modest steps to move into public life in recent decades.
Thus, it is totally appropriate that information about women’s rights received the lion’s share of attention in the recent New York Times report on the sobering behind-the-scenes realities in that troubled land. You can see that right in the headline: “Afghans Wonder ‘What About Us?’ as U.S. Troops Prepare to Withdraw,” with its subhead mentioning fears that the “country will be unable to preserve its modest gains toward democracy and women’s rights.”
Again, this news hook is totally valid. However, I think that this story needed some information — at least a paragraph of two — acknowledging the serious concerns of members of minority religious groups in Afghanistan. These range from Islamic minorities (and more moderate forms of that faith) as well as small, but historic, communities of Baha’is, Sikhs, Jews and Christians. And then there are the reports about growing underground networks of secret Christian converts.
This is, literally, a life-and-death situation for thousands of people. Might this human-rights issue be worth a sentence or two?
Hold that thought. First, here is the overture in this otherwise fine feature:
KABUL, Afghanistan — A female high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, is worried that she won’t be allowed to graduate. A pomegranate farmer in Kandahar wonders if his orchards will ever be clear of Taliban land mines. A government soldier in Ghazni fears he will never stop fighting.
Three Afghans from disparate walks of life, now each asking the same question: What will become of me when the Americans leave?
President Biden on Wednesday vowed to withdraw all American troops by Sept. 11, 20 years after the first Americans arrived to drive out Al Qaeda following the 2001 terrorist attacks. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” he said, speaking from the White House.
The American withdrawal would end the longest war in United States history, but it is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.
Further into this story, there is some summary material that — as you would expect — focuses on basic political questions and, again, points to issues affecting women in Afghanistan.
Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.
The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.
Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it banned women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes.
Note this crucial phrase describing the Taliban goals, which focus on establishing “a government based on their extremist view of Islam.” That’s pretty standard news language — but note that it implies (accurately) that there are many Muslims, especially in minority groups linked that faith, that do not support Taliban laws and doctrines.
What groups, in Afghanistan, fall into this category? Does anyone speak for them?
If you want more background on this situation, check out the U.S. State Department’s 2019 International Religious Freedom report on Afghanistan. Here are some key quotes, describing on-the-ground realities during a time when US troops were still present to support government forces:
* ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras.
* The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including shooting or hanging any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.”
* According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reticent to reveal their identities to anyone. One Christian citizen described being disowned by his family after they learned he had converted to Christianity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued verbal harassment by some Muslims. … Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering.
* … Only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites.
News consumers interested in knowing more about the underground church in Afghanistan — which has grown in recent decades — can turn to reports by Persecution.org and Open Doors USA. Note that Afghanistan was No. 2 on the Open Doors “World Watch List” of dangerous nations during the past few years — with American forces present.
Also, readers seeking mainstream news coverage about the plight of Christians in Afghanistan can — ironically — flash back to 2014 and see this solid New York Times report: “A Christian Convert, on the Run in Afghanistan.” Here is the overture:
KABUL, Afghanistan — In a dank basement on the outskirts of Kabul, Josef read his worn blue Bible by the light of a propane lantern, as he had done for weeks since he fled from his family in Pakistan.
His few worldly possessions sat nearby in the 10-by-10-foot room of stone and crumbling brown earth. He keeps a wooden cross with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount written on it, a carton of Esse cigarettes, and a thin plastic folder containing records of his conversion to Christianity.
The documents are the reason he is hiding for his life.
That story remains important today? And in the months ahead?
That goes without saying, and not just for Christian believers — but for Shia Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’is, Jews and others. Thus, theTimes still needed to say the obvious.