How We--You and Me--Missed the Story of the Taliban in the Years Leading Up to 9-11

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Mr. Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey, and lecturer in politics at Princeton University.

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On May 2, the New York Times Magazine featured one of its perennially irritating human-interest interviews, in this case with Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard political scientist, author of The Clash of Civilizations (1996), and most recently, a somewhat curmudgeonly critic of immigration (with special emphasis on and ire for Hispanic immigration). Interviews of this sort always appear on a single page early on in the Times Magazine, under the heading “The Way We Live Now: Questions for _____”; they usually consist of “witty” (i.e., snide) and superficial questions asked of the great personages of the day, which the great personages, in turn, are supposed to answer with equally “witty” and superficial answers.

On this occasion, however, neither the interviewer, Deborah Solomon nor Huntington decided to follow the script—the result being a somewhat less-than-smooth interview. A sample:

Solomon: What about English food? Wouldn't you rather have pizza or sushi than shepherd's pie?

Huntington: I'm not talking about culture in that sense. I am talking about a whole set of values.

Solomon: Are you an immigrant? I hope you're not one of those Mayflower snobs.

Huntington: The Huntingtons arrived in Boston in 1633. Almost all Huntingtons in the U.S. are descended from Simon and Margaret Huntington, who were part of a group of settlers from Norwich, England, who founded Norwich, Conn.

Solomon: Did you grow up in a WASP-y mansion in Connecticut with servants?

Huntington: WASP yes, servants no. I grew up in an apartment in Astoria, Queens.

Solomon: Do you think that there is any truth to the stereotypical view of WASP's as emotionally cold people?

Huntington: Wait a minute.

I was amused to read the letters responding to the Huntington interview in the magazine’s May 16 issue. Of the four letters published, three of them take Solomon to task for the nature of the questions she asked Huntington, and all three writers criticize her for being too hard on him:

The questions asked didn’t exactly probe the Harvard professor’s rationale for his position. What your reporter seemed to want to ask was, Are you anything other than the evil white dude I see before me?

Your reporter insults white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with the patronizing tone of her questions….

I found the queries about Huntington’s background offensive and doubt that you would have felt free to make that kind of jump about anyone else’s ethnic background.

What’s especially amusing about these letters, to paraphrase Senator Inhofe, is not the outrage but the contrast—the contrast, that is, with a long-forgotten interview on the same page in the same magazine five years ago. The interviewee was a man named Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the Taliban’s official representative to the UN; he was interviewed by Amy Finnerty in the TimesMagazine on March 21, 1999. I remember the interview vividly, if only because I remember how vividly it made me sick to my stomach. I also checked (and recently re-checked) subsequent issues of the magazine, expecting a flood of outraged letters on the interview. None came.

Pause a moment to read the list of questions that the Times decided to ask the person they coyly described as “the Taliban’s man in the U.S.”:

1. Has the adjustment to life in New York been difficult?

2. How are your children doing in school?

3. Do you allow them to watch television at all?

4. And what is life like in your neighborhood?

5. Have you learned your neighbors’ backgrounds?

6. Is America a good place to rear children?

7. Do you think Afghan society is too strict?

8. What is your response to critics of your government, like the Feminist Majority Foundation?

9. What is your impression of relationships between men and women in America?

10. Do you ever indulge in the local luxuries? What do you make of American culture?

11. Have you read any books in English? [One of them turned out to be Ibsen’s A Doll House, whose ending Mujahid criticized.]

12. So how would you like Ibsen’s A Doll House to have ended?

I’m sure Samuel Huntington would have appreciated a few of those softballs.

To question #1, Mujahid responded: “I am living here [in the Flushing section of Queens, NY] in the Afghan community, so I didn’t find myself among strangers. We are following the same culture, the same beliefs.” The idea that the Afghan community of Queens might be openly hospitable to an official representative of the Taliban did not strike the Times’s reporter (or evidently, anyone else) as being in the least problematic.

To question #5, Mujahid noted that his neighbors were principally Jewish, commenting in a charming way on the similarity of the Jews’ “little hats” with those worn by his own co-religionists. On “the Jewish question” in Afghanistan, both interviewer (and naturally, interviewee) were noticeably reticent. As it happens, the Flushing neighborhood of Queens is also home to many Asian Indians; within a year, Hindus of this ethnicity in Afghanistan would be wearing the equivalent of yellow stars to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population.

The answer to question #7 was a predictable “no,” followed by a predictable appeal to cultural relativism.

To question #8, Mujahid responded: “The Government in Afghanistan is running according to the will of 95 percent of the women there. If the campaign of the Feminist Majority were explained to Afghan women, Afghan women would find it ridiculous and insulting.” Evidently, no follow-up was necessary on this ludicrous assertion.

The full answer to question #11, in case you were wondering, was “Shakespeare and Ibsen’s Doll House.” I will simply leave you to guess at the answer to #12. For a hint, think about the answer to #8.

One needn’t be a defender of the methods of Abu Ghraib Prison to think that the questions asked of Mujahid could have been just a little bit tougher. Samuel Huntington’s views on Hispanic immigration are arguably offensive (I find them so), but at least he wasn’t the official representative of a terrorist-friendly totalitarian theocracy. Why then the hard-edged questions in the one case, but not in the other? And why the subsequent attention and outrage about the nature of the questions asked of one man, but not the other?

The answer has much to do with a little-discussed topic in contemporary cultural history. The work of the 9/11 Commission has focused salutary attention on the failings of our government. But relatively less attention has been focused on the failings of the press—and on the consumers they serve, namely us. One notable exception is Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s book The Age of Sacred Terror (Random House, 2003), but public opinion is a passing topic in the book, not its main theme.

What strikes the reader of newspaper archives between, say, 1993 and 2001 is the sheer overwhelming insouciance among Americans about Islamic theocracy and terrorism—and the infuriating magnanimity with which the representatives of theocracy and terrorism were received in public as they offered apologetics for their policies and practices. It must seem surreal to us now, but the fact is that “the Taliban’s man in the U.S.” was greeted with open arms almost everywhere he went between his arrival here in January 1997 and his hasty departure a few days before the beginning of the war on Afghanistan in October 2001. (Mujahid left the U.S. on October 2; the war began on October 7.) The Times’s photo of him is typical in this respect: it depicts a genial, smiling guy in exotic clothing, gesturing with his hands. I look at the photo and think: he could be my uncle.

Consider in this vein a small and yet acutely embarrassing news story (one of many I collected) from the San Francisco Chronicle, describing Mujahid’s appearance in the Bay Area. The story is not in the least anomalous; it’s a perfect depiction of the tone of articles on the Taliban in the mainstream press right up to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the spring of 2001:

The Taliban leaders speak with care. They are not wild-eyed. But they are out of step with a world whose help they desperately need to reconstruct a nation from rubble. They may pose no threat to their northern neighbors, but they have not made that clear. These are not masters of PR....

Their meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel this week is likely to disappoint, even though she knows where they are coming from and sees some truth in Taliban’s claims, some justification in their frustration with Western media. But to anoint Taliban, she says, would be to choose sides in a situation that the State Department still considers fluid. [Lewis Dolinsky, “Notes from Here and There: A Close Encounter with the Taliban,” San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 14, 1997, p. A16.]

For “non-masters of PR,” those Taliban certainly managed to exert a fair bit of influence over the State Department while fooling a lot of American journalists, didn’t they?

Mujahid spoke, among other locations, at Columbia, Yale, Lewis and Clark, Mt. St. Mary’s College, and the South Asian Journalists Association (“An Evening with Abdul Hakeem Mujahid”)—almost always to well-mannered audiences that, whatever their skepticism of his claims, regarded him as a perfectly respectable person, par for the course on the lecture circuit. The only appreciable protest against him of which I’m aware took place at Yale in 2000—organized principally by feminists and human rights activists there, with the aim, in one activist’s admirable words, “to bring public awareness to the grotesque human rights violations of this regime.” (Fat chance of that!)

Interestingly, the person who invited “the Taliban’s man” to Yale—one Michael Rubin, then a lecturer in the history department—turns out more recently to be a “resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, having recently served 18 months in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an Iraq and Iran advisor, during which time he was also seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority’s governance team.” I add this little tidbit for readers who might have taken me to be beating up in an unseemly way on “the liberal media.” I suppose I was, but I’d be the last to deny that appeasement is the monopoly of any one ideological faction.

There’s a lot more to the Abdul Hakeem Mujahid Story, but I’ll leave the telling of the rest of it for another time. For now, I close with the following thought. Much has been made of the hasty and supposedly untoward departure of the bin Laden family from the U.S. just after 9/11, in special aircraft commissioned and dispatched by the Bush Administration. Bad, you say. But stop a minute to wonder what happened to Abdul Hakeem Mujahid and his Taliban “delegation.” How did they manage to get out of the country? And where are they now?

Unlike the hapless bin Ladens, the Mujahid Family & Co. didn’t need a special flight out of the U.S. They simply bought tickets at the opportune time (i.e., five days before we commenced to make war on their country), drove from Flushing to JFK Airport, and flew home—or as close to home as they could get. Today, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid resides in northern Pakistan, having openly set up shop among the Pakistani fundamentalist parties and the (tolerated) remnants of the Taliban there. Last I checked, he was the “spokesman” for one of the militant Islamic factions, busily subverting the Musharraf government and the U.S./Pakistani war on terrorism in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. From Taliban spokesman in Flushing before the war to Taliban spokesman in Peshawar afterwards: if that isn’t job security, what is?

Our press prides itself on giving us “all the news that’s fit to print.” But the news that’s “fit to print” just consists of the answers to the questions that are fit to ask: ask the wrong questions, as was done for a decade, and you get the wrong answers or none at all. With all due respect for the work of the Tom Keans and General Tagubas of the world, perhaps the question to be asking now is why so much time until so recently was spent asking all the wrong questions. By “so much time,” I mean “since the first World Trade Center bombing”; by “so recently,” I mean “since 9/11.” And by “we” I mean all of us in the most “diverse and inclusive” sense conceivable. It’s all great fun to express our umbrage, in retrospect, at the failures of others—the INS, the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the ACLU, the gun lobby, Bush, Clinton, the treasonable Left, the sinister neo-conservatives, and Lynndie England. They are not us.

The trouble is, in a democracy, the distance between “them” and “us” is never all that big, and the fact is, we are the ones who missed the story about the Taliban & Co. What if America’s basic “intelligence failure” was democracy’s success in catering to our evasions? What else explains why we get worked up about the likes of Samuel Huntington today but didn’t get worked up about the likes of Abdul Hakeem Mujahid five years ago?

For better or worse, we don’t have government commissions to answer questions like this; answering them is the job of sociologists and cultural historians. I could be looking in the wrong places, but unfortunately, I don’t get the sense that that bunch is asking or answering them. And if they won’t, who will?

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Now that the proverbial barn door has been shut, and long after the prior occupants exited, Mr. Khawaja apparently wants to slam it again and again. A more useful topic might have been (for example): What international stupidities is America committing today that will come back later to bite us badly, like 9-11 did ? I seriously doubt that some kind of "cultural" reluctance to ask rude and shallow questions of foreigners will be the main regret ten years about what our society and, more crucially, our government are inflicting and projecting abroad today.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

You might want to start with my article, "Afghanistan: Peace at What Price?" Princeton Tory, Dec. 1987. In it, I take issue with US support for the mujahidin, predicting that it would lead to terrorism against the US. I was a freshman in college at the time. Pre-9/11 enough for you?

If you really want to look hard, you'll find some stray denunciations of the Taliban by yours truly dating to the spring of 2001 in the archives of the Atlantic monthly online. And I believe I wrote an angry letter to the editor of the Times on the occasion of the interview I mention in the article (1999). That, after all, is why I remembered the interview after all these years.

I think my track record on this is better than average, considering that area studies is not my academic area of specialization, and that I was in my 20's when the Taliban rose--and thus don't have very many articles on anything dating to that period of time on any subject, including my actual academic area of specialization. I suppose I can't prove this to your satisfaction, but I did my share of vociferous arguing with insouciant Pakistanis about the evils of the Taliban as early as 1995-96--including cabinet-ranking members of the Nawaz Sharif government, who were the ones most actively backing the Taliban. I was essentially told to shut my Zionist mouth and mind my own business.

Incidentally, I can't help noting what an obvious red herring your objection happens to be. Suppose that I really was the biggest hypocrite on God's green earth on this subject. How would that affect my argument? It's worded in such a way as to refer to "the widest and most inclusive" sense of "we" imaginable. Wouldn't that include IK, the author?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Since The Princeton Tory ca. 1987 is not exactly an easy-to-access publication, I thought I'd excerpt a bit of the article I mentioned here:

"In addition ot the economic and social havoc they have created in Pakistan, very few of the mujahidin are interested in any sort of political cooperation with a Western democratic power. The US must remember that most of the moderate Afghan resistance leaders were murdered by the Soviets in order to radicalize the mujahidin. Those who remain are, by Western standards, Khomeiniistic fanatics. Indeed, the links to Iran cannot be underestimated; recent attacks by Iranians in the Persian Gulf were conducted by US-made but mujahidin-supplied anti-aircraft missiles. The war has become as much the mujahidin's livelihood as an ideological struggle. The resistance thrives on the extensive heroin and arms blackmarket created by the war to finance their acquisitions of US arms, often selling those weapons for a profit to various government and terrorist organizations." ...

"This unflattering picture of the resistance leads one to conclude that by arming the mujahidin we are offering liberty and democracy on a silver platter only to find the silver platter taken and both liberty and democracy left behind..."

Irfan Khawaja, "Afghanistan: Peace at What Price?" The Princeton Tory, Dec. 1987, pp. 20-21.


Kevin Shanks - 5/28/2004

A useful corrective to the U.S. media's "soft-pedaling" of the Taliban (a contention I don't agree with, by the way) would be a list of critical articles about the Taliban -- pre-9/11, of course -- by Mr. Khawaja.


Colin Wass - 5/26/2004

An interesting article, but misses two key elements of the historical context that allowed the Taliban to be essentially ignored.

The first is that, regardless of how we might feel about it "foreigners being mean to other foreigners somewhere else" will almost never be sufficient on its own to get the majority's attention and ire. The nature of the Taliban was never really at issue, only the importance of its behaviour to western society.

The second is that there was not a lot of desire in political circles to overly demonize the Taliban. It was still very fresh in many minds that the Taliban were a direct result of the US supported insurgency in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet invasion. They were the political result of the Mujahadin, with Al Qaeda being the fighting element. In a sense, an argument could have been made (although wrongly) that the Taliban should be an ally of the US as a consequence of their joint effort. Not something most politicians would look forward to debating.
In the end, an unwillingness to look too deeply at the potential hazards of such a government is consistent with the context of the times. There's a lesson in there for all western nations, but I'm not willing to bet on us learning it any time soon.

mark safranski - 5/25/2004

"How did they manage to get out of the country? And where are they now? "

Or better yet how the hell did they get in ?

If you scroll back through H-Diplo's archives, there was a short debate thread on the Taliban when they announced their intent to destroy the ancient Buddhist statues - which they promptly did. The insight that these were a bunch of barbarians wasn't all that well received.