Soft bigotry in hard places
In Afghanistan, change was everywhere if you had eyes to see
On my second reporting trip to Afghanistan, I found my way to a corner shop in Kabul where I was told I could buy a SIM card. Then I waited at the corner for a young man whom a mutual American friend introduced to me over email chats. Amin, we will call him, was a university student working for a local nonprofit, and together we went to lunch at his office.
The meal was spread over a large table and we sat, me and the men. In Afghanistan lunch is typically served on the floor, men in one room and women in another. More out of the ordinary, one of the older men bowed his head to pray. These were Christians, the older man (old in Afghanistan is 45) a leader in one of the church networks then multiplying underground throughout the country.
I can’t describe the privilege of that meeting for me, or the warmth of it in a country so full of unrest and distrust. A woman (even veiled) taken into a congregation of men, a journalist trusted inside a group that even then was hunted and despised.
To think about Afghanistan, you must unwind Western assumptions and look at what its people have lived. Afghanistan is a landlocked country overrun by invaders. Most adults there have lived only in war: 35 years of a Cold War–driven Russian invasion and occupation, followed by civil war, Taliban rule ending in 9/11, and a U.S.-led war ending now in a Taliban takeover. Distrust is the water they drink. “The war has taken away trust even among Afghans,” the older Christian told me. “Another believer would not easily come and introduce himself to me.”
I had stepped across a canyon-like divide, later taking cabs to meet a driver to go to an office to meet another driver to go to a safe house, and in this way learning about their underground church and the small group of Westerners who sometimes lent support. Far from the headlines and the televised summits, these were the ways relationships formed in Afghanistan. It’s why you see the outpouring of help and grief from U.S. veterans and others now.
When a Christian amputee turned up in jail, we learned fellow inmates beat and raped him because two Westerners running a school were brave enough to visit the prison. They got in to see Musa and offered to do his laundry as a way to make regular calls. Musa hid notes in his dirty clothes detailing horrible conditions, notes they passed to Western diplomats, eventually building pressure for top U.S. officials to demand his release. He fled for Rome and lives in Europe to this day.
Crossing the divides is a tall order for Afghan Christians, too. Many are converts from rigid Islamic families. Some are former mujahedeen. Many, even as the Taliban were on a clear march to destroy the work of 20 years, decided to change their national identity cards to indicate they are no longer Muslims but Christians.
That decision made it easy for the Taliban to track them down. Hundreds escaped by land, but at the Kabul airport many more could not get through. They had documents and their names appeared on State Department manifests, but when they showed up at proper gates, they were denied entrance.
If hardened Islamists can become softened Christians, willing to risk their lives and future on a gospel they treasure, why can’t nations change, too? Why invest at all or ever, unless such change is possible?
When President Joe Biden blames Afghans for what’s happened in their country, behind it lurks what President George W. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s a statist belief, rife among foreign-policy realists, that people are only as good as powerful governments make them.
We Christians buy this at our own peril, and the peril of Afghan believers and others. To deny Afghans the right to change when dramatic examples of change abound (see Afghan women in universities, infant mortality rates, literacy growth, private-run media, etc.) is not only something cruel, but self-defeating.
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