Our Body Politic

Documenting Extremist Youth Recruitment, the Power of Protest, and Examining Our Narratives about Afghanistan

Episode Notes

Farai Chideya talks with journalist Dana Coester about her extensive reporting on how extremists recruit rural youth online. Carol Alvarado of the Texas Senate shares what it took to stage a 15-hour filibuster of a state law that would make it harder for people to vote. New York Times editor Veronica Chambers highlights the joy and lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement in her new children’s book “Call and Response: the Story of Black Lives Matter.” On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Eliza Anyangwe, editor at CNN’s “As Equals” series, and foreign policy expert Hagar Chemali who hosts “Oh My World” on YouTube, analyze the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the Western narratives around it.


0:51 Award-winning journalist Dana Coester on how extremists recruit rural youth online

12:53 Texas state Senator Carol Alvarado on her 15-hour filibuster to defend voting rights

20:55 Veronica Chambers of the New York Times on her new children’s book ““Call and Response: the Story of Black Lives Matter.”

31:42 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Eliza Anyangwe of CNN and Hagar Chemali of YouTube channel “Oh My World” on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. Thanks to those of you who helped us shape the show with your input since the very beginning, and we love hearing from new and loyal listeners. So after you listen today, please head over to Apple Podcasts on whatever device you're listening right now and leave us a review. Your input makes a difference. Thank you.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. In this episode, we tap into the expertise of journalists from around the country to cover topics including the US exodus from Afghanistan. First, what one journalist has discovered about the way online extremism ensnares vulnerable youth. Dana Coester is an Associate Professor at West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, and the editor in chief of the collaborative media outlet, 100 Days in Appalachia. The outlet just won a prestigious national Edward R. Murrow Award in the hard news category for the reporting on extremism.

Dana leads the Rural Digital Youth Resiliency Project, which touches on how white supremacists recruit youth in rural Appalachia. Her work is at the intersection of journalism, public policy, and direct connection to families and educators to try to ensure the physical and psychological health of local teens. Now that work has turned into a documentary, she's producing and directing called Raised by Wolves, which will be out next year. Dana Coester, congratulations on the Murrow Award, and welcome to Our Body Politic.

Dana Coester: Thank you so much. And thank you for having me.

Chideya: So how did you start doing this work?

Coester: Well, we had started noticing some real changes online and in our communities, frankly. And even though I was a sort of media scholar, technology scholar, the access I had through community members and my own children helped me see something that was really simmering below the surface. And this is going back really to 2012, 2014. And we just started following those threads and became increasingly horrified at what we were seeing.

Chideya: What were some of the things that you saw happening on the internet and in the real world that really made you think, I've got to get in here somehow?

Coester: So there was just this real devolving of an ability to even engage and identified misinformation with friends, family members, community members, whereas before that had been intact. So that was one of the shifts that we saw early on, that was alarming. The other was children began to be sort of mainstreamed into gaming culture through the arrival of Minecraft, and teachers and parents are... and everybody's like all STEM-happy and this is going to be the best thing ever, it's going to teach our children how to be coders. And instead, really what it did was push young people on mass, I mean, second graders, third graders, kindergartners into a space that was already pre-populated with a lot of toxic content, and mostly, as we say, hiding in plain sight and hidden from parents.

Chideya: Are people who are trying to recruit white teens into white supremacist or nationalist groups using benign platforms to also find routes to reach them?

Coester: Oh, absolutely. I mean, some of the most concerning content we saw was in Instagram. We'd see teams interacting with all kinds of wholesome content, but also mixed in with that content was really targeted anti-immigration messaging, anti-muslim messaging a lot in our area, anti-Semitic content, but dressed up in the same style of jokes and memes as the other content that wasn't. And we all know the data about how this content becomes amplified, and anything that's extreme in any direction is much more profitable and more widespread in these platforms. And kids would see that themselves, when they would post that and get lots of likes and the other kinds of things that the platforms are training kids to seek. And none of that is something that happens overnight, but you really, when you have a long scale view of it like we do, you really see it for the grooming process that it is.

Chideya: And you'd sent one of your staffers to cover the protest, which turned into the insurrection on January 6th. Why did you decide to send someone there? What kind of pre-analysis had you done about how that day was going to unfold? And what did you end up sharing in your work?

Coester: We were already becoming very, very alarmed at what we were seeing and the messaging and threads and community-based activities that we were seeing. So we started to raise the alarm the summer prior to this, and at that time felt like I was being... I would preface everything I said with, "I don't mean to be alarmist," but one of the things that we noticed was the sort of shift from online messaging to in-person offline meetups. And that was one of the sort of triggers for us that things were getting potentially more dangerous. We did not send somebody ... Chris Jones is our extremism reporter, who is also part of the Report for America corps. We felt safe and secure sending such a seasoned reporter and a veteran into that situation, but yeah, that was rough.

Chideya: And part of how you operate is that you talk to educators, parents, and people in public health. That's a different approach than most journalism outlets. Tell me how you decided on that.

Coester: There was sort of a moment on my porch where a mom in my community, and she knew the work we were doing, and she said, "I'm afraid my kid is becoming a Nazi and I don't know why."

Chideya: Wow.

Coester: And I realized, I'm reading BuzzFeed and Huffington Post and all the journalists who are like writing and working all the stuff, and I thought, she's not reading these articles, we are, just journalists are reading these articles, we're all reading each other's work. This is not impacting anybody in the community, where it's happening in their lives. So that was when we really made a pretty dramatic shift to talk directly to, of course, educators, of course, parents, teens themselves, but also we saw it as a public mental health problem. So we were also bringing in mental health adolescent behavioral medicine folks and other folks who work in epidemiology and public health policy, to try and help tackle this as a community problem.

Chideya: Now, thinking about what you're doing, what are you seeing in terms of successful interventions, particularly thinking the people who are the moms, the dads, the educators, the public health people who you talk to?

Coester: I would like to say that there's some great models for things that are working, and I can't say that yet. I mean, mostly, when we speak to people, they're terrified, they're afraid, or they were unaware that it was even happening. So I mean, frankly, we're trying to work with them to create some potential interventions. I do think that peer-to-peer work might actually be more impactful. I think the parent and teacher role at the grade school and middle school level is potentially impactful. But one of the things that we do find is that when we talk with teens, we never talk down to teens, we never do any kind of pearl clutching, but just inform them of their rights and responsibilities and risks online in a very matter of fact way, and help them understand how manipulation happens. Like really sort of help them see how that sausage is made. One thing that I've seen is effective is enlisting teens to identify that when they see it happening. And I've seen them feel quite proud when they're able to accurately identify that and bring that to someone's attention.

Chideya: One of the things I think about is that anytime young people are recruited into something that is potentially damaging or even fatal to them, whether it's a gang or a white nationalist or supremacist group, it's often because there's a hole in their life in terms of other things that they could engage with that might be safer, more productive. Do you think that's part of the problem?

Coester: Oh, my gosh, yes. Well, and there's several holes. One is the hole... I mean, part of the reason we look at rural youth is there are real conditions in rural communities, from geographic remoteness, to lack of aftercare and other kinds of programs that are just not available. Kids spend more and more time online, so that is absolutely a factor. But I would say that the other hole is in the internet itself. There is no alternative effective broad mass coalesced alternative to this very, very effective messaging that has had several decades now, to get quite polished and quite tangled. And one of the things that I feel really frustrated about is when people fail to understand the tentacles of all of that and how far reaching it is, because journalists and researchers alike, they tend to have a very specialized expertise where they're looking at a pocket of something. So, if you're studying Qanon you're looking at that, if you're studying COVID misinfo you're studying that, if you're looking at extremist and military you're looking at that, when in fact, all of those things are actually related by a lot of adjacent networking that's been built up over years. So when you see it as the mass that it is, you recognize how much of a threat it is. Which I actually kind of joked yesterday, but maybe it's not a joke, that it's the extremism industrial complex, because there's a lot. It has its own economy now, it is a kind of content and entertainment online. And so there are a lot of people invested intentionally or not, in fact, continuing, even if they're not extremists, it makes money for people too.

Chideya: Yeah, that's absolutely true. There's a lot of financial upside that comes out of everything from selling ads on extremist content provider sites to direct solicitation. We've talked a lot about some heavy stuff. I've been reporting on this for almost 30 years now, meaning extremism, you have certainly gone 100% all in with your award-winning work. But I don't want to leave people with the idea that Appalachia is just this problem. What should people know about Appalachia, your home, that we often don't see?

Coester: Yeah, absolutely not. I mean, and it's funny because we also are working on a counter piece that's about Appalachian teens, unrelated to this, because we wanted to just show the resiliency, the optimism of an incredible generation of young people that we see coming up. I spend so much time in these spaces, and I see that not just in Appalachia, but across the country, I see the willful curious globalism of young people where they in a way are kind of borderless but in a very positive way. And of course that's stuff that is also manipulated to pull people into things. But from a positive point, I see a young generation that is coming up like a revolution, I say. And there's a lot of things that have been systemic problems for decades, and they are not having it. So I'm very excited about that.

Chideya: Oh, Dana, we're excited about your work. Thanks so much for joining us.

Coester: Thank you.

Chideya: That was Dana Coester, Associate Professor at West Virginia University, and editor in chief at the digital outlet, 100 Days in Appalachia. That's at 100daysinappalachia.com. Texas state legislators have been battling over two state bills that would place new restrictions on voting. House Democrats fled Texas in mid July to prevent a vote in that part of the legislature. Meanwhile, one Democratic state senator staged a 15-hour filibuster to try, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Senate bill from passing. Carol Alvarado represents District 6 in Harris County, including parts of Houston, which is also her hometown. Here she is moments away from ending her filibuster, referring to former US Senator from Texas and former President, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Sen. Carol Alvarado:

It is on his legacy that Texas Democrats in both chambers, draw the line in the sand and say unapologetically and in one accord, for the world to hear that voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere.

Chideya: Senator Alvarado, thank you for coming on Our Body Politic.

Alvarado: Hi, you're welcome. It's my pleasure to be with you all.

Chideya: You sound so tired and so resolute at the same time. I can't imagine, I understand that the rules are that you weren't supposed to sit or lean on anything, so I guess you did some yoga or whatever to get ready for this?

Alvarado: Yeah, well, I think aside from that, I just, in preparing for this, doing a lot of stretching and eating lighter foods and things like that, and drinking plenty of water to hydrate because I knew I could not have any water. So this is very different than, for example, what the US Senate calls a filibuster, where you just simply say, "Hey, I'm going to filibuster," and that's it, the bill's dead. Here it certainly test probably every ability in your body, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Chideya: What was your biggest takeaway after you walked away 15 hours after you started?

Alvarado: I left there knowing that I have done everything humanly possible to shine a national spotlight, a big, bright spotlight on this issue. And I think that during that 15-hour time, you have to stay on the topic of the bill. We've dissected that bill, and then I was able to read testimony and I focused intentionally on the disabled and senior citizens. And the testimonies I focused on, gave some really life stories examples of what people would have to go through.

Chideya: And tell us a little bit more about the comments you solicited? You had a hashtag and you also took constituent responses by email. Do any of the specific personal stories still stick with you?

Alvarado: Yes, and one really hit home with me, and it was at a moment where I kind of almost lost it, but I was reading a story from somebody who has a parent who's 93-years-old, and said that their father had Parkinson's, and the tremors affected his signature and the ability to actually sign his name. And it reminded me of my dad who had Parkinson's, who's no longer with us. And I said, "Speaking of my dad," I pulled out a picture that I brought to the floor with me that day, and it was my dad's picture, and I said, "You know, when I get tired, I feel like I can't stand anymore, like I can't go on, I look at him."

Chideya: What are the stakes of all of this to you, both for Texas and for the United States?

Alvarado: Well, it's going to have an impact on our next elections, midterm elections in 2022. We have redistricting ahead of us, numbers have come out and we know that we're seeing, what we already assume, which was a large growth in the Latino community, pretty much in every ethnic group except the Anglo community. People may just say, "The heck with it, this is too much trouble. I like the way I used to be able to come, curbside, and not have to get out of the car if somebody was in there, or this extra hoop I have to go through in vote-by-mail," you get enough people here and there to just say, "Too much trouble, not going to do it." It can impact swing districts. We're now just one of a handful, maybe... I don't know, maybe 10 states, that doesn't allow for online voter registration, when we do everything online. And I really don't have a good reason why Republicans in Texas are opposed to online voter registration. So you see, there's a pattern there. They don't want something like online voter registration, which a lot of neighboring states here in the south have. And then they're proposing legislation that's causing people to go through extra hoops. So, that's telling the story in itself.

Chideya: I wanted to ask about something else, which is the mask mandate issue. There are many states where it's being debated, and your governor issued executive orders banning government entities from requiring masks. How do you think about that?

Alvarado: I disagree with that. And it's unfortunate, because our rates are going through the roof. Our medical communities are stretched, both in staffing and resources, beds are hard to come by just for people with other types of illnesses, let alone COVID. And that doesn't have to be the case. But people continue to play politics with this issue on mask, and it's unfortunate, and I wish it would come to an end. It's a problem, our school districts we've had, at least, a couple that I know of, the largest ones for sure here in Houston and Austin who've said they're not going to comply with that, they are going through with their mask mandates. I don't think we ought to be tying the hands of local officials.

Chideya: And Senator, wrapping up here, we spoke with historian and Professor, Annette Gordon-Reed, about her book, On Juneteenth, not long ago. And among other things, she wrote that the cultural identity of Texas, in things like Westerns, was a white man. And the demographics of Texas are changing, but what about Texas's self image? Is all of this battle over voting rights in some ways, a battle over how Texas sees itself?

Alvarado: I don't think that what's being proposed is reflective over the overall population in Texas. It's changing, it's younger, it's more diverse, it's more progressive, it's more open-minded. And I think this is about people pandering to Trump and his big lie and the accusations about the 2020 election that continues to manipulate a lot of their actions. And shame on them for allowing somebody like him, big liar telling the big lie, to continue, somebody who's no longer in office, but continue to manipulate them on the elections and voter fraud. And by the way, our attorney general spent 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud and didn't find anything. So that just goes to show you, they're playing politics, people want to run for president or higher office or whatever, and that's what this is about.

Chideya: Senator, thank you so much for joining us.

Alvarado: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: That was Texas State Senator Carol Alvarado. Since we recorded that interview, news broke that Texas governor, Greg Abbott, who was vaccinated but attended large meetings unmasked, had tested positive for COVID-19. The Black Lives Matter movement had been building for the better part of a decade when George Floyd was murdered. In 2020, protests led by BLM mobilized millions of people in the US and around the world. When Veronica Chambers, editor of Narrative Projects at the New York Times was offered the chance to write a book about the movement, she already had plenty on her plate, but she decided to do it anyway. The result is her new book, Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Veronica.

Veronica Chambers:

Thank you. So happy to be here.

Chideya: This book includes a chronology connecting the dots of what we now call the Black Lives Matter movement, and it also has an incredible array of photographs. So, why did you write Call and Response, and who's the audience that you have in mind?

Chambers: It was crafted as a middle grade book last year. I got a call from my editor and she said to me, after the summer of 2020, "Don't you want to write a book about Black Lives Matter?" I felt a little bit like, there was something so powerful in the moment and there was an immediacy to grabbing what you know in the moment, as opposed to how it feels a year from now, two years from now. And we just decided to do it.

Chideya: You do a lot of work at the New York Times now combining words and images. And so, why was it important that images be such an important part of this work?

Chambers: One of the things that I feel that I've really learned in working with photographs at the New York Times is that, there's an emotional truth to a great photograph. We must have gone through 1000 photographs for this book. And the ones that grab you are almost universal, and they don't need words to tell 100 different stories. And so, that's always really exciting to me.

Chideya: And let's go back to the question of audience, you talked about this coming out of inspiration for middle readers, so for older school-aged kids, and yet the book is very sophisticated, you're not writing down.

Chambers: I really wanted to give kids, teachers, parents, librarians, and any adults who love photography, a chance to like explore these questions like, what is systemic racism? What is underneath this movement? Why did between 15 million and 26 million people in the US participate in some sort of Black Lives Matter protest last year? Why is it one of the biggest movements in our nation's history? Those are big questions. So I think at the end of the day, I could only simplify so much, but I think that younger teenagers and older middle school kids are ready and want to have that conversation.

Chideya: Yeah. And as the mother of a teenage daughter, how do you process having conversations with your child?

Chambers: Last summer was hard for me on a lot of levels. My daughter had just turned 13, and she had so many questions. And she was kicked out of a group chat with school friends, because they said that she was "obsessed with race." And these were non-black people. And so, a lot of the questions that I put into this book really began at that old kitchen table wisdom, it was the kitchen table conversations I was having with my daughter.

Chideya: And you also mentioned wanting this to be a book that could be read by students, parents, librarians, teachers. Right now, with the whole debate over critical race theory, which is really a debate over not critical race theory. It's not about critical race theory, it's about just teaching history and how that makes some people afraid. How are you viewing the lens of what gets taught and what gets included in kids' lives through that debate? For example, are you worried that this book might get blocked some places?

Chambers: The thing I always say is that this isn't so much black history as American history, and it's a book about Black Lives Matter, but really, it's a book about why we protest and why it matters. Peaceful protest has over the last 100 years taken over as the form of protest around the world, because it works. So I think that the book uses Black Lives Matter as a tent-pole to talk about why do people protest and why does it matter? So like, one of my favorite chapters in the book was based on a metro story by a reporting fellow named Juliana Kim, and it was called Who's Who at a Protest. And when my daughter came home from going to her first protest and I showed her Juliana's story, which we ended up incorporating into a chapter, and I was like, okay, those are the marshals and they lead. And then the people on the front are the people who are willing to get arrested. They are legal observers, they are medics, they are supplies people. And it blew her mind because all she saw was crowds. And so, I think a chapter like that isn't so much about Black Lives Matter, it's about any kind of protests there's something incredibly well thought out that connects the dots between the March on Washington, and protests in Ferguson, and protests last year, and also the climate change protests, and the March for Our Lives protest. And really the end of the book brings together all kinds of protests that young people have done over the last few years.

Chideya: When you think about that, looking back now on the racial reckoning summer, which in some ways never ended, but certainly there was a peak moment, what do you think has come out of that moment in time that surprised you maybe?

Chambers: I think what surprised me was the shift in the understanding that these protests were more diverse than ever. I mean, there was a really powerful piece, I'm blanking on who it was by, was by a historian. And he talks about how actually in the late 1960s, when there were protests and uprisings, a lot of white middle class people were surprised. They were like, "Well, you got the Voting Rights Act. Like, why are you protesting?" And I think what's interesting and what I think is so powerful about what this movement did, is that they kept the focus on all the things that were broken and how they were interconnected, and people of all different races got it and they understood that it affected them. And I think in some small way, the diversity of the movement and the people who really took it on, however, clumsily along the way, was an important beginning to a shift, to understand that this affects all of us and all of our lives are hurt and lesser for these imbalances.

Chideya: I really enjoyed your chapter that gets so much into the art of protest, including music. What has caught your eye in all of the visual and performing arts centered around the Black Lives Matter movement?

Chambers: One of the things that really moved me was the art piece that an artist did, where he flew banners across five cities, and each banner had the text of some of George Floyd's last words. And it was just so powerful. It was Jammie Holmes, a painter from Louisiana. And he called it an aerial demonstration. And so above Detroit it said, "Please I can't breathe." Over Miami, the banner read, "My stomach hurts." Above Dallas, "My neck hurts." Through Los Angeles, "Everything hurts." And then finally, in New York, a plane flew a banner that said, "They're going to kill me." And so I think, just the creativity. And one of the other things I've been trying to say to teachers and librarians who are like, "I'm worried about clapback against critical race theory and teaching this book or having this book in my library," is that there is not a decade of American history in which black Americans have not responded to pain, suffering, tragedy, and injustice, with an incredible amount of creativity and hope. And at the end of the day, I truly believe if for no other reason, then we have lived and are living through one of the toughest moments in our lives. There's a way to pivot this book and to say, "What can we learn from black Americans about creativity and hope that all students should know?" And I think you see that in sports, you see it in arts, you see it in the music. We made a throwback protest playlist, we made a Black Lives Matter protest playlist. And it wasn't just to kind of amp up musical artists, it was to say, when things get tough, we do things. We put on music, we highlighted Bakers Against Racism, surfers paddling out. Like, at the end of the day, we respond to all this pain and impossible to bear just a system that seems so broken with both solutions and an attempt to heal ourselves to be strong enough to keep going. And I think that is where the country is, and I think that's what the country needs. And I would hate for that to get lost in a conversation about what Black Lives Matter as a limited thought might mean to some people.

Chideya: Well, you know, there's that phrase, "The joy is in the struggle." And your book has a lot of joy in it. Veronica, thank you for joining us.

Chambers: Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: That was Veronica Chambers of the New York Times. Her book with Jennifer Harlan is Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter. Find it wherever you find your books. Each week on the show, we bring you a round table called Sippin' the Political Tea. This week on the Round table I'm joined by Hagar Chemali, a foreign policy expert and host of Oh My World, a video series on YouTube. She worked in government for 12 years, including at the White House, the US Department of the Treasury, and the US State Department. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Hagar.

Hagar Chemali: Thank you so much. I am so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Chideya: And I'm joined by Eliza Anyangwe, editor at CNN's award-winning As Equal series, focused on systemic gender inequality. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Eliza.

Eliza Anyangwe: Thank you for having me Farai.

Chideya: So, this week we're going to focus on Afghanistan. President Joe Biden shared his remarks after the US decision to withdraw American troops.

Pres. Joe Biden: We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals, get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure Al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.

Chideya: Hagar, what do you think of the President's framing of this as a clear goal, first of all, before we dive into what's happening? Was it a clear goal when the US entered Afghanistan?

Chemali: It was a clear goal at the very beginning, but from there, things got a little bit murky. The problem is, and this is something that we learned with both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was that, the plans for going in and the lack of a clear exit strategy really hurt us in the end. And so President Biden in his statement this week when he talked about that this wasn't a nation-building exercise, the problem is that there were a lot of elements of our operation that seemed like a nation-building exercise, right? We poured billions of dollars into building Afghanistan's infrastructure, we trained all of their security forces, their police. The thing is, when we went in, it appeared as though the mission was clear, but then as time wore on and as the years wore on and as there didn't really seem to be a clear exit strategy, the mission seemed to get muddied along the way.

Chideya: Tell us a little bit more about the return of the Taliban. What does it mean for US foreign policy and just geopolitics in general?

Chemali: In the '90s, I used to focus a lot on the Taliban. I used to write a lot about the Taliban. I think it was a little bit my Middle Eastern background, I felt it posed one of the greatest threats. I had an, I remember, I can never forget, an argument with one of my professors at Barnard at the time, who told me in 2000 or 1999, that the biggest threat was Russian proliferation. And I looked at her and I said, "No, the biggest threat is absolutely Islamic extremism stemming from Afghanistan." And that was before September 11. And that is what we're about to go back to. And to have the Taliban return, what that means is return to how things were in the '90s. And what I mean is, first, internally, you're going to have a return of extreme Islamic rule and Sharia law, women and girls will not be allowed to go to school, women and girls will have virtually no rights, you will barely see them outside of the house, a lot of businesses and just general commerce among their own people will get clamped down, there'll be extortion and taxation, people will be ruled by fear. Things like having the wrong SIM card in your phone, things like getting on the phone with a woman, if you're a man, with a woman who's not your relative, all of that will face severe punishment and consequences including things like harsh imprisonment, whipping, public stoning. I mean, it's a very, very harsh world. And what that means for our foreign policy is that we will not have a partner in an area where, without a doubt, it will become a breeding ground for terrorists. And so you're going to have this area where organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other offshoots, will have the opportunity to recruit, to train, to become more brainwashed, and to also live off the benefits financially of the ground, meaning taxing people or benefiting off the resources in Afghanistan, whether it's minerals or drugs.

Chideya: One of the things that you've mentioned in that incredible description of the moving pieces here is gender. And I had the pleasure of meeting Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winner, who of course, risked her life to get an education as a girl and wrote a piece in The New York Times recently about what this geopolitical change means for girls. Eliza, you are a specialist in, among other things, gender. And how are you parsing out the gender implications here?

Anyangwe: Yeah, I think this is a very important question and one that on As Equals we have been asking ourselves every day, because our focus is on trying to look at not just describing what is happening now, which the vast majority of the news media, including our own colleagues, rightfully so are doing as people are trying to understand what they're seeing, what they're hearing, but also trying to understand why it's happening and what it means. And in a moment of crisis like that which Afghanistan is going through, the sheer fear that people are feeling as their futures are uncertain, it seems a really difficult time to sort of delve into what is underpinning the questions of patriarchy, the long shadow of various types of oppression in the country and beyond it, to separate out what women and girls will be facing when a whole country moves to such repressive reality, seems really insensitive in some way. So we've been grappling with that. However, at the same time, we're very aware that there is going to be a gendered response from the Taliban, we know that there's going to be gendered effects of living under Taliban rule, as you were just talking about. And we are thinking about how we present these in ways that don't just celebrate Western concepts and Western constructs of what liberty looks like, right? So, that is our challenge. How do we talk about the repression of women and girls rights in different parts of the world? How do we contextualize that without making easy casual assumptions about what we have as being better? And an example of this is often, what I've been seeing recently in sort of the visual framing, comparing pictures of women in burkas to Afghan women in some glorious past time wearing miniskirts. And so I'm often conscious of how we in the media are actually not just sort of speaking on behalf of Afghan women in this case, but also sort of projecting our own sense of what liberty and freedom might look like. And really, a very thin freedom, because we, in our own shores, women are still grappling for equality and liberation in many ways.

Chideya: Yeah, certainly the pandemic has shown how American women in the West are on the struggle bus for gender equity. There are many different layers to the game.

Anyangwe: Absolutely.

Chideya: Hagar, what are your thoughts about Eliza's point of view on how we cover this in the media without making false equivalencies, or, for example, claiming that the West is perfect?

Chemali: I feel very strong about that. I agree with Eliza completely. It's one of the things that I personally struggled with when I worked in the US government. And yet, it's one of the reasons why the US government sought me, it was because of my Middle Eastern background and appreciation and understanding of the region, of the language. I am born and raised in the United States, but both my parents come from Lebanon. It gave me at least, and it gives me, this understanding of another world and appreciation for it in a way that is sometimes hard for someone who is... And I don't want to paint that somebody who's born and raised here and who doesn't have another background of some kind, that they can't understand fully the region, but in my own experience, I always found I had a leg up in terms of understanding things differently. And I agree, you can't impose an American or Western way for countries worldwide, because culture comes in and other elements. Now, it is not at all, I don't want to at all undermine how backwards things are going to go for women and girls in Afghanistan.

Anyangwe: Can I just chime in here?

Chideya: Yes, please.

Anyangwe: Because I think where there is a sort of dearth of imagination, particularly perhaps from my own industry, from the media, but I guess beyond it in civil society and in policymaking, is not so much sort of describing and preempting and being prepared for the terrible things that are coming now, is to think about what does a reimagined future for Afghan women and girls look like? And this is where we tend to fall foul, right? Because we project our own sense of what liberation or feminism should be, and we use that as the standard. And this is, of course, less pertinent in the moment of crisis, but if we are going to be trying to imagine how can we support and frame the struggle for Afghan women and girls and imagine a better reality for them, this is where having a foot in different worlds really comes into play. Because, and being born in Cameroon and raised across Africa, I have often come to realize that people, especially those who we perceive as being oppressed, downtrodden, voiceless, exercise power and have different demands than the ones that we imagine that they should have. And so, we often make the mistake of not centering their voice, not asking them, instead, just basically harvesting and using their grief, using their stories for our reporting. And so, when I try and both... You know, trying to imagine how we can say yes and yes, the present and immediate future for Afghan women and girls is going to be dire. And we need to figure out how we can, for those who have the space to speak, ask them what does equality and equity look like for them, rather than center our own narratives.

Chideya: There has already been in the United States quite a bit of discussion of how this is going to affect America's immigrant and refugee pipeline. Tucker Carlson, for example, said if history is any guide, we may see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country. I'm shortening this a bit, but this is a direct quote, "So first we invade, and then we are invaded." This is going to play into, it already is playing into, a US culture war over immigrants and refugees. So just briefly, Eliza, and then Hagar, how are you looking at the narrative of immigrants and refugees as it's applying here?

Anyangwe: Yeah, again, another excellent question. Because just this morning, my team were part of the sort of morning huddle discussing the question of immigrants and refugees, and as we are part of CNN's international team looking at, for example, what the UK is doing and how many refugees they're going to be taking. And the first thing that we need to remind ourselves is that we are nowhere near the front-line for where refugees, where displaced people are going to be going, right? We're not going to bear the brunt of that. And actually, oftentimes, as we find with refugee programs, sometimes also with people who try and make their own way out, those who make it the furthest away are often the ones who have a bit more means. So actually, we are getting in some insidious way the cream of the crop, right? Now, first, we have to sort of reiterate those points, and then we have to hold our own countries to account, because we need to look at what was the treatment of those who have been previously resettled, right? Where, you know, wants to look at everything in economic terms, while someone who is settled, has learned the language, whose family is supported, who is not subjected to xenophobic rhetoric in the media, or abuse in the streets, that person is far likely to make better and more substantial contributions to the society that they're in. And we have to ask ourselves and ask our own governments how well they have done on that front, right? On one hand, we are presenting ourselves as offering help and support, and on the other hand, we make it very difficult for people to resettle for them to live their lives. We need to basically call out our own hypocrisy here, while also taking a look at what's happening further afield.

Chideya: Hagar, I'm also going to toss it to you. I mean, as someone who has spent years in government and also in media, how do you think we are processing or going to process the question of immigrants and refugees coming out of the end of this war in a very polarized America?

Chemali: It's a fascinating topic, because I don't think that I've ever seen... I mean, I think maybe in my lifetime, at least, a point at which this conversation about immigration, refugees has become so divided and so revolting almost in the United States, right? If there's anybody I've seen, and listen, and I don't beat around the bush here, who has portrayed a dangerous and ignorant view of foreign policy and immigration, it's Tucker Carlson. And it is not just this horrific quote that I had not heard about Afghan refugees, but it's the trip he just took to Hungary, where he interviewed Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and painted Orbán's immigration policies, specifically his immigration policies, as a model for the United States, which, again, the ignorance, it's just outstanding and dangerous because of the platform that Tucker Carlson has and the following. He is not just playing on beliefs that already exist in the United States, but he is playing them up as well, right? He's empowering them, he's enabling them, he's including more people to believe what Tucker Carlson believes, which from what I gather, is that the United States should not really have much immigration whatsoever, and I'm talking about legal immigration. And so when I see this attempt by people like Tucker Carlson, it could hurt things in the United States and make things more divisive for years to come, when what we should all be doing is the opposite, is trying to unite.

Chideya: This has been so informative. And before we go, I just want to ask each of you what you're keeping an eye on as things move ahead. For me, I have a friend who's 20 years older than me, who happened to be traveling as a tourist through Afghanistan right before the Soviet Army rolled in and started the war, which started in December of 1979. And I always think about the history of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, when I think about what has happened in the course of the US engagement there. So I'm keeping an eye on the return of veterans to the United States, possible downsizing of the army, if we don't have this massive war and the war in Iraq, what will happen to the size of the US military? That's just stuff I'm thinking about. Eliza, what are you thinking about?

Anyangwe: So I think going back to where I started, I'm definitely going to keep thinking about how to support the reporting on what is happening with more in depth reporting on why it's happening, and more crucially, in our age of lots of information, some meaning. So, why is this happening? How can we process this? And by centering women and non-binary people's voices to tell those stories. And then I'll keep an ear to the ground and to keep watchful of the ways in which we can see and find and center Afghan women's voices, so that we hear from them about how they need us to be covering what they're living through and helping them vision what might come afterwards, but I think that might be a while from now yet as they're still in very much in the midst of crisis.

Chideya: And Hagar, what are you thinking about?

Chemali: The main thing I'm thinking about is how terrorism flourishes in Afghanistan from here, and whether the equipment that we've left there, the arms, the guns, the helicopters, how the Taliban ends up using that, if they get their hands on all of it, which I assume they will, and whether it ends up pushing terrorism to another level that we haven't seen before.

Chideya: Well, Hagar and Eliza, thank you both so much for joining us.

Anyangwe: Thank you for having me.

Chemali: Thank you so much Farai, it's been a pleasure.

Chideya: That was CNN editor, Eliza Anyangwe, of the As Equals series on gender equity, and foreign policy expert and host of YouTube's, Oh My World, Hagar Chemali. Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior producers are Paulina Velasco and Sara McClure. Cedric Wilson is lead producer, and mixed this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Veda Chand.

Chideya: This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, the Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Documenting Extremist Youth Recruitment, the Power of Protest, and Examining Our Narratives about Afghanistan.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. August 20, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/