A Conversation with Mindy Belz
WORLD Radio - A Conversation with Mindy Belz
WORLD's Senior Editor reflects on 30 years of journalism, 9/11, and Afghanistan
PAUL BUTLER: From the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is a WORLD Radio Special Presentation.
For 30 years, Senior Editor Mindy Belz has been our eyes and ears around the globe. In her October 21st column for WORLD Magazine, Mindy bid her readers and colleagues a fond farewell.
Earlier this year, WORLD’s Emily Whitten interviewed Mindy for the September Classic Book of the Month. We only used a small portion of that conversation on the podcast, so today, we present a much longer version of it to mark the end of Mindy’s tenure at WORLD. Here’s interviewer Emily Whitten.
EMILY WHITTEN: Last fall, during America’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, I asked Mindy Belz to recommend a few books on that situation as well as the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11. Mindy recommended Taliban by Ahmed Rhashid and The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, and we sat down one afternoon to chat about them.
In addition to her political insight, our discussion gave me a glimpse of her personal journey as a reporter—how 9/11 impacted her work, what it was like to be a female reporter in the Middle East. She also helped me consider the plight of fellow Christians she’s come to know in difficult places. You can learn more about these modern day Daniels in her 2017 book, They Say We Are Infidels.
It’s hard to say goodbye to such a valued friend and colleague. But I do hope this interview will give you a small sense of Mindy’s immense contribution. And I encourage you to join my prayer at the end for God’s blessing on her future endeavors.
Let’s listen in now as Mindy explains some ways God prepared her to write about the Middle East after 9/11.
MINDY BELZ, GUEST: It's actually very memorable to me, and I would say it goes back to before 9/11. In 1999, I was on a trip to Sudan. And a friend who had helped me a lot in that world gave me this book by Yossef Bodansky, the quintessential biography of Osama bin Laden. And when he handed it to me, I did not know who Osama bin Laden was. But I was going to Sudan where bin Laden had had his training camps. I was in an area very near to those camps. He was by that time in Afghanistan. But, you know, that was like my first read of what we were up against, and really understanding what the jihadist movement I'll call it was about—and how intent it was on attacking America and attacking infidels or non Muslims or people who did not live up to the the jihadist creed.
And so it was really a wake up call. And the same person who gave me that book, then later gave me the Ahmed Rhashid book, Taliban. I honestly don't remember if I read that book before or after 9/11. I believe it was before because I actually got to know Yossef Bodansky. He was working as an adviser on a congressional committee on Capitol Hill. I met with him, he had a fascinating story. These guys were seeing what was coming. They were traveling in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen, you know, who at one time were U.S. allies. We forget that, right? And so there were these, these journalists and investigators who had this deep history and understanding of these things long before 9/11. And none of us were paying attention. And so these were like the two seminal books for me going into 9/11. And I think it just helped me understand the worldview that was coming from this movement, and just how critically opposed to our own worldview, it was.
EMILY WHITTEN, HOST: Do you think if 9/11 had not happened...think of how your life would have been different.
BELZ: It's completely impossible for me to think of my life apart from 9/11 for a lot of reasons. But I do think that trajectory of my work, let's just say, that definitely changed that. When I began reporting for WORLD and doing things internationally, the Middle East was like the last part of the world that I wanted to cover. And I kept sort of being forced to do stories because of events. And then it just became clear, like reading these books, and being in Sudan where you had a civil war going on at that time that pitted the Muslim North against the Christian South. And it was very much all of the features that we came to see in play after 9/11. And so I was getting sort of schooled, you might say, before I even knew it on what would come after.
And so one thing led to another, but after 9/11, it was just absolutely clear that that's what I would be covering. That these these jihadist groups—starting with Al-Qaeda, including the Taliban and others—were posing a mortal threat to our own way of life. To Western life generally, but but really, if things went on, to Christian life specifically. And then to begin to see how they were targeting the ancient communities in places like Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon. And then you know, outward from there. But definitely also, I mean, very different but similar features to what was happening in Afghanistan.
WHITTEN: I'm gonna ask you one more question about yourself. To some extent, I see the same thing that you do, but I'm not called to work on it. How do you get the courage and the strength and whatever it takes to do all that? To look into that window?
BELZ: Yeah, it's definitely one step at a time. And I would say there is, you know... the research and the talking to experts is just one aspect of it. The real key point for me, though, has just been actually traveling in those countries and meeting the people who live there. My whole focus shifted from following what the terror groups were doing, following what the governments were doing, to finding out how the people were surviving.
And I think that that gets to, Emily, the fact that I was going into this as a mom, you know. That, that on 9/11, you know, I had children ranging from first grade to 10th grade, I think. And my concern, my first concern, like every parent in America was for them, and for what was ahead for them, and for what we had entered as a country and what it would mean for their lives. And I'm now coming forward, I just see how my reporting was very much shaped by the fact that I was a parent. I was a mom.
And I would go into a place. I mean, Afghanistan is a great example. Because the first time I went to Afghanistan, I had, you know, very specific questions that I wanted to ask very specific leaders, both nationally and in the villages that I went into. And then when I would get there, what would always happen, it would always be lunchtime. And lunchtime meant that the women went in one building to have lunch, and the men went in the other building to have lunch. And that was so frustrating to me as a journalist because I needed to talk to the men. But then if I sat with the women, and it was a long drawn out affair, and I'm doing my American thing, I'm looking at my watch and thinking, ‘I am not getting the checklist checked off here. And I need to do that.’
But then I began listening to the women, and then I began watching them and how they interacted with one another. And I realized, here is a side of Afghan life that males never get to see. And, and these were women, these women were very aware of what was going on in their country. They were listening all the time to the male conversations. And they were also, there was also a family dynamic that was at work. You know, many of these families have two and three wives in them. And there's a competition and there's a drama and there's a hierarchy. And so beginning to watch and learn from that was just an incredible window for me.
And it just trained me to sort of stop apologizing that I was a mom, or stop feeling like that was a hindrance, somehow. That was like an asset that I brought in to any place that I went. People in that part of the world would assume that I was only like...People would ask me very often when I sat down, even in a formal meeting, ‘Where's your father?’ You know, because it is—that is the expectation that women do not travel in those parts of the world unless their father or their husband is with them. And it was a compliment that they thought I was young enough, you know, that I was unmarried. And it was my father not, didn't realize that I was middle aged and had four children.
But then being able to identify myself as a mother with four children. There was respect for that that, you know, we forget about in the West. There was real respect for that. And then there was, there was an engagement on just a very deep and personal level. And those were the things making those kinds of connections, that really, you know, reporting has to be head and heart and and those were the things that engaged my heart. And, and I think that that's why the you know, the coming of ISIS and what it meant particularly for people I had come to know and for families was very tragic in Iraq. And that led to my first book.
But then the situation in Afghanistan unfolding the way it has has also been tragic. Even though I haven't been there in years, I have kept in touch with people and continue to follow the situation. The dramatic situation for these people, these average everyday Afghans who are trying to survive what's been done to them by jihadists, by the Taliban, by the United States, too.
WHITTEN: For the next section of our interview, I asked Mindy to go back to the hours and days after 9/11. A time of shock and mourning at the loss of life America experienced. A rare moment of national unity as well, with people across the political spectrum flying American flags from high rise buildings and car windows.
The urgent questions of the day pressed us all: who was responsible? And how should America respond? In this portion of our conversation, we eventually get to the book The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. But first, I ask Mindy to explain why Ahmed Rhashid’s book, Taliban, became invaluable to her and so many others in that moment.
BELZ: It's a journalistic account. And so I'm naturally—journalists were drawn to it. And it became something of a guidebook for journalists. It's very detailed. It has names, dates, places. It has a chronology that is very straightforward and makes it possible for those of us who aren't familiar with that part of the world to begin to get a handle on it. I would say some of the key points that I think are fascinating and still very relevant today.
One is just simply how he describes the Afghan boys of the generation growing up originally under the Taliban in the 80s and 90s. The quest for meaning that was everywhere among that generation. I think you begin to see how this is, this is a philosophical, this is a worldview battle. Because these were these were young boys and young men who were left rootless, who were left without jobs because of the long time of war in Afghanistan. They couldn't even farm anymore. And so they were ripe for what the Taliban was offering, what al Qaeda was offering.
They were orphans of war. They were rootless. They were without a past you could even say. I mean, I think about, you know what Karl Marx called the “lumpenproletariat.” This is something directly from the book that's a very apt description of the kind of people that would make the ranks of the Taliban. And why that's important is because those are the people who are in leadership in the Taliban now.
And you know, another way I was thinking today, another way to think about it is you know, if you've read Frank Herbert's Dune series or books like that, the armies that we see in those sort of fictional worlds. These armies of people that, basically, they have no family. They have no past. They are only dedicated to the present. And that brings a certain ruthlessness and extremism. And then when you add discipline and you add sort of a grid for seeing the world on top of that, you see how this has become—we're not talking about just a band of guerrillas operating out of the mountains of Afghanistan anymore. We're talking about a vast movement that is organized, that is disciplined, and that has a very rigid worldview attached to it. Rashid just described that so well, and and really, with a lot of journalistic detail brings that to life.
WHITTEN: Yeah, and I mean he also does talk about the Taliban as being part of a larger movement. In reading your book, you know, it seems like we we've always been fighting against that. We don't want to accept that. The political will in the United States is to have a limited, get in-get out, one bad guy that we can kill, and we're done, right? And Rashid—you don't come away with that picture when you read him.
BELZ: And that's a very important point right now, because here we are on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And we've seen what's happened in Afghanistan. And we have been, after following these wars and these conflicts for two decades, myself. We consistently are being given what what I've heard others call, what I would call a delusional narrative by our political leadership. And that cuts across Republicans and Democrats. I can say that as a very non partisan comment. They have portrayed that what we're up against in very delusional, fantastical ways, and they have always had the sense that they had to dumb it down for the American people.
But right now, we are hearing things from our current administration that just simply are not what's happening. And so when you look at the Taliban, you cannot separate them from Al Qaeda. You cannot separate them from the Haqqani network that has been embedded in the fabric of Pakistan, one of our allies. And when you start to try to act like these are—and I would even say you cannot separate them from ISIS-K, which we're hearing so much about, because they have now launched attacks in Kabul. And you know, the people who've been studying this for a long time, there's there's real reason to think that ISIS-K is simply a cutout of the Taliban. It can do the bidding of this larger movement and give them plausible deniability because apparently was done by their enemy.
And so right now, you have this—and this is the way it works in this part of the world, that a terror attack happens that it's supposedly happened by the enemy of the Taliban. And therefore, the Taliban denounces that, and we think, "Oh, that's good." But if it's somebody who's actually connected to the Taliban and they're denying it, that's just them doing what they do. And that's just us being fooled one more time. And this has happened to us over and over and over again.
And I think that, you know, in the early years after 9/11, and I, you know, I credit President George Bush with speaking clearly to the American people right from the beginning after the attacks. Things became very muddled. Things got away from us. But somehow when it comes to groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, to listen to the Biden administration in 2021, you would think that the U.S. government has not learned anything since 9/11 about the groups that we're dealing with.
I believe that it has something to do with wanting to present a war in a certain way as achievable. We're seeing that it's not achievable under those terms, but consistently wanting to present it as something that's achievable. Instead of presenting it as what it is, and really defining for the American people, what are the threats? How can we combat them? And what should we be doing? We just aren't having that kind of discussion.
WHITTEN: Is there anything else that you think is important that Rashid gets right that we need to pay attention to?
BELZ: Yeah, the two things that he really captures, that I think make it a relevant book in 2021 are that he does in detail describe the worldview, the culture, the atmosphere that has created the Taliban.
The other thing that he's does that's so relevant right now, is in detail to describe the ties of the Taliban to elements within the Pakistani government. And from what I understand from listening to experts, that has not changed. And I think the evidence is there. If you think, you know, in 2011, when the United States killed Osama bin Laden, where was he? He was in Pakistan. Where was the leader of the Taliban when he died in 2013? He was in Pakistan.
And what Rashid does is give like the structure that was beneath that. How back in the 80s and 90s, the United States—and CIA specifically—was funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan through its counterparts in the Pakistani government, the intelligence service within the Pakistan government. We were sending all kinds of money under the table through there. And that built up this powerful and well financed machine that was able then to funnel that money to jihadist groups. And that's what has changed over time. These are the things we aren’t hearing about from our government.
WHITTEN: Are there any cautions you would give about the book? Is there anything that you think, you know, as a Christian I just, that I don't agree with that, or people need to watch out not get sucked into that?
BELZ: Yeah, I mean, we should recognize that he's a product of the the culture that he comes from, and it's not a Christian culture. And I don't believe that he's a Christian. And so he has on some levels, a very what I would call sort of a secular Muslim world viewpoint. And I don't think that discredits the book. I just simply think it's a feature that's worth noting.
He will do things like at one point he compares the the discipline within the Taliban in the early years to the discipline of the early art Christian armies of the crusade. I think Christians can hear that and not feel that Christianity is being slammed in the process. But definitely there this feature to it coming from what I would describe as a secular viewpoint, but his expertise remains exceptional.
WHITTEN: Okay. What about the all the oil stuff? I remember hearing early on, during the Iraq War, “Oh, this is just all about oil.” Well, obviously, oil plays a major role in the story. But I feel like there's more going on than just oil.
BELZ: Right. And oil is much less of a factor in these kinds of, you know, geopolitical conflicts right now than it was 20 years ago when he wrote the book or 30 years ago. I do think it's relevant, though, in this way—that, you know, we want to look at underlying causes. And one of the underlying things that has been at work in this whole situation in Afghanistan, is, is that definitely the Chinese, definitely the Russians, but particularly the Chinese are looking at Afghanistan. They want it. They want an inroad there that has not been possible to them under U.S. presence there. And that is because of rare earths and mineral, just a vast array of mineral deposits that are there. And, and so that's like, the new oil, I would say, is, you know, the the minerals needed to power our, our cell phones and our, our gadgets. And that's going to be part of this next thing that unfolds.
WHITTEN: So, it's not going to just become completely irrelevant and no one's going to care about that region? And we can just ignore it from now on?
BELZ: There are people in America who keep hoping that will happen, and there are days when I'm one of them. But it's not going to happen. Someone asked me how many Americans have served in Afghanistan. And I said, I would imagine 250 to 350,000. And they were astonished by that number. And when I finally found out what the number was, it's 800,000. So we have close to a million Americans who have a tie to Afghanistan. Many of them lost someone there. Many of them, you know, themselves were injured and carried those injuries from there. And so there is a deep tie there now that we're not going to easily walk away from.
And that, you know, keep in mind that was a NATO war also. And so there are British, Canadian, Australian, German contingents. This was a very large Western war. And for two decades, it consumed our military. And so I don't think that as Americans, generally we're going to be able to just close the door and ignore it.
WHITTEN: So tell me why why people would consider reading Stewart? What does he bring that Rashid doesn't bring?
BELZ: Relief. Um, you know, you you get so deep in in counter-terrorism and terrorism and military movements and things like that, which is essentially what the Taliban book is, and it can get a little dark and depressing. And when I came across Rory Stewart's book, several people recommended it to me and I read it sometime after it came out. And it was, it was beautiful.
It's like a travelogue. And it's fascinating because he walked across Afghanistan. In 2002, so right in the middle of the war he is making a walking trek across a country at war. And he's encountering the war as he goes, but he's mostly encountering the people. And so again, it ties into this idea and my own focus of just, what is happening to the people? And the myths of these, you know, great power conflicts. And he really captures that in such a beautiful way.
And as a journalist, it's just it was, I would say, it was actually motivating to me, because he is walking. He doesn't know where he's going to end at night. And he gets to a village. And he simply asked for a place to stay. And he's always taken in. And he's always protected. And so you get, I think, a really important feature of Afghan life, which is this code of hospitality. And this, the sense of welcome that actually has not gone away there. A woman could not do what he did. But I was fascinated by just the simple fact of the feat that was the story.
The second thing is that he captures rural life that has changed dramatically. Now, I was in rural villages in the 2010-2012 period. And already, they were very different from 2002 when he was going in. He was going into villages that were completely cut off from the rest rest of the world. Some of the people he was talking to didn't know the country was at war, didn't know the U.S. was just over the mountain. And they were cut off from—they didn't have electricity. They didn't have phones, or TVs. And I've, you know, this past couple of weeks, I've talked to a number of Afghans who I've known for a long time, and just said, “Remind me where you were on 9/11,” or “I never heard where you were on 9/11. Tell me,” and almost all of them would say they've learned about the 9/11 attacks via their radios. Their radios were how they got the news in 2001. And they didn't have CNN like we did.
But that's very different now. When I was in those villages in 2012, those villages were connected. They had internet. I was talking to young men with Facebook accounts who wanted to pull them up and show me who they talked to, who their friends were on Facebook. And we have a whole new generation of Afghans who don't remember the Taliban occupation before, who don't remember Afghanistan when it wasn't a connected place where they could chat on a daily basis with their cousins who live in Sweden or the United States. And so that's a very different feature.
And you don't necessarily get that in the book. But it's fascinating to get this picture of the life of Afghanistan because the villages still are very important. We tend to focus on the cities, but there are really only three main cities in Afghanistan. And they are where people from the villages congregate. But their family ties are still in the villages. And it's a very important feature to understand about Afghan life.
WHITTEN: Where were you when you heard about 9/11?
BELZ: I was in my car. I had taken my children to school. And I was hearing it on the radio. And I had a deadline for a story that was actually about the UN that day, and I came back to my desk to try to call some people and couldn't reach any of them. And so then I turned on the TV and saw just in time to see the the second plane going into the second tower. And yeah, from there.
WHITTEN: This interview with Mindy took place as the American withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded last August. Today, the news cycle has moved on, and if you’re like me, you’re tempted to forget the urgent needs there—especially the need for prayer.
In this final section, Mindy once again draws our eyes back to reality of the Middle East—to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Her book, They Say We Are Infidels, might be the best resource to see what she’s seen and love those she’s come to love. We begin, though, by discussing the new relevance of Rhashid’s book, Taliban.
WHITTEN:One of the things that Rashid says is, I heard an interview with him that Mary Louise Kelly did from, on NPR. And he says, as far as he knows, nothing has changed with the Taliban. He says, they say they have changed. Yeah. And we can hope that they have changed. But there's no evidence at this point that they have changed.
BELZ: Yeah, there is no evidence that they have changed. And any of the places that have been tracking this—Long War Journal is a good source because they've been tracking their movements since 2001, maybe even before. And any of these places that the groups that are monitoring the Taliban chatter, their Twitter handles and their other accounts and who, you know, know the language and can see what is happening. They have not moderated their language among themselves. They have not stopped attacks. You know, there's just brutal attacks that have happened even in the last year leading up to where we are Right now,So we’ll have to watch what the Taliban does and not what it says.
WHITTEN: Right, right. If we say, What's different now than 9/11? Well, we have an educated class that knows a lot about the Taliban, and Afghanistan and all those regions, they know a lot more the details of different factions. And but I think that the ignorance about who the Taliban is, is probably the same among the American people. There was this sense that it's just not important.
BELZ: Yeah, I mean, I think on both sides, there are people who have done us no service. And the anti war contingent on the left has never been able to look seriously at the threats because they have only been able to look at people like George Bush who took us to war and criticize them. And on the right, I would say that, you know, in the zeal to justify the war, we've also often done it with slogans instead of on reality. And as I'm saying, you know, leaders who could articulate.
And one of the slogans that's been picked up in recent years is the Forever War slogan, and that this became synonymous with Forever War. And that hugely diminished the sacrifice of our American forces there. It also, I mean to me, it's almost criminal how it undersells what's happened to Afghan people there. If you look at the statistics, infant mortality has improved by five years. I mean, that's an incredible statistical change. Since 2009, I mean, these were the things that were happening in what has been called a Forever War.
Women were going to school and being educated at phenomenal rates, owning businesses moving into broadcasting and media, singing and stands. You know, we saw this, this very popular Afghan singer, she was able to get evacuated. And the Afghans themselves are so proud of this moment where she walks into a soccer stadium and sings for this a crowd of men. These were things that were unheard of things were happening, things were changing, and we were smothering the knowledge of that under the slogan forever war.
WHITTEN: Yeah, that's very true. Just as sort of a last topic, Well, how do we go beyond the headlines?
BELZ: For me, going beyond the headlines has always been taking the trouble and the time to look at the people and to look at what's happening. And so I think that we have to really pay attention to the stories that do that in the media. And also really be asking ourselves a question of what our responsibility is to a group of people like Afghans right now. I think that America has an incredible responsibility to them.
You can get into a lot of political discussions, a lot of back and forth about things that most of us are removed from, but we're not removed from understanding family life, understanding parents who care for their children, understanding people who are trying to flee terrible situations. And so I think it really calls for us to pay more attention to what is happening to the people.
I also think for Christians that always means paying attention to what's happening to the Christians in any part of the world. It's important, not only as a point of solidarity. It’s important because the Bible commands us to care about our brothers and sisters near and far. Or I should say, Jesus commands us to put a finer point on it.
It's also important, I think, because as we see how Christians are treated, I've seen this over and over and over, it becomes something of a litmus test of what is ahead. Because the Christians in these sort of persecuted places under a lot of oppression tend to develop a very strong inner and outer posture. And first of all, we can learn from that.
And secondly, because they are known in their communities. They tend to want to serve their communities. The ones who stay, they—and I know some of them now there are Christians serving in the Afghan government. There are Christians at the university levels. There are Christians running businesses or at least up until the moment where we are right now. And so they have a kind of interface that also gives us again, this kind of everyday perspective on Afghanistan, but it also...What is happening to them is what's going to be ahead for the country at large. And we've seen that over and over that countries that cannot treat their religious minorities well and treat Christians well, who are wanting to do people no harm in places of power, wanting to love enemies. If those people who want to love enemies can't be treated well, then we know that we're going to be in trouble.
We know that it's a place that is going to become a threat to everyone, Muslim and Christian included. And as a place that is going to, in some way become a threat to the security of the United States and the security of things that we know and love. If you look at the countries that are most mistreating Christians right now, they are Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and those are also the countries that our leaders are talking about as the biggest threats to us. And China, I didn't include China.
WHITTEN: Is there a Bible verse that comes to mind that has helped you through all this?
BELZ: Well, I would say the Psalms generally, just simply because they lift our eyes up, and they direct us to God in heaven. You know, we often talk about Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, there's a picture where he's standing at the right hand of the Father. And I love it. It's just a tiny phrase, but I love that idea that Jesus is standing. He is watching. He is caring about these kinds of things and especially about his church and especially about his church in hard places undergoing hard things. And I think those are images that that sort of helped me and remind me that God has not forgotten his people. God is seated the heavens and also engaging in what's going on even as we speak. And that gives me a lot of courage. And it gives me a lot of hope too.
WHITTEN: Yeah. Great. Thank you so much, Mindy. I appreciate your time.
I'm amazed at the things that God has allowed you to do and the people He's allowed you to touch. And then He just, you know, you think about all the places that you went that were so dangerous that he just, like, He protected you. I don't know. It's just, it's really….
BELZ: Yeah, I feel very privileged by all of that. I really do.
WHITTEN: Yeah, well, let me say a quick prayer for you. Father, I just pray for Mindy that You would just bless her work today. And bless her in the next few months as things unfold. And I just pray that You would bless her contacts and help people to pick up the phone. And I just pray that You bless her work. Amen.
WHITTEN: The books we discussed today are Ahmed Rhashid’s Taliban and Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between. You can also go deeper on the topic with Mindy Belz’s They Say We Are Infidels or see her website, mindybelz.com.
Thanks again for listening to this WORLD Radio Special Presentation.
I’m Emily Whitten.
Interview recorded: 8/26/21
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