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Perilous combination: Afghan, woman, journalist

On the day Osama bin Laden's minions rained death from the skies over the United States, along with claims of Islamic martyrdom, most Americans and other Westerners knew a lot less than they do today about Islam and Muslims.

The September 11, 2001 attacks immediately propelled a surge in reporting on religion, particularly Islam. Journalists took on the job of giving people a factual basis for sizing up the airliner hijackers: Were they zealots, brainwashed cultists or the tip of the iceberg? Did many Muslims think like that? What motivation could send those men on a suicide mission to take thousands of souls with them?

The Religion Newswriters Association, a niche group if ever there was one, suddenly found itself of far more general interest to journalists who had to explain basic Islamic tenets and religious splinter groups. Reporters began interviewing imams and scholars. To explain the political and terrorist group al-Qaida, writers needed to understand how it could claim to be righteous, and what other Muslims thought of that.

I thought of those days while watching devastation unfold on citizens in Afghanistan last week and in the bombings that killed American troops and Afghans outside the Kabul airport Thursday. The American military had arrived when the United States identified Afghanistan as harboring bin Laden and his radical followers. The Taliban rose to prominence in 1994 as another movement of Islamic fundamentalism. Last week a Taliban spokesman falsely claimed there is no proof that bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 attacks. The newer group evidently responsible for the bombing, Islamic State Khorasan, ISIS-K, is the sworn enemy of both the U.S. and the Taliban.

The past 20 years of progress is about to be swept away. Afghans had begun to experience a more diverse society. Women and girls made gains in education and having careers outside the home. Many in Afghanistan's cadre of journalists are women who were present at the creation of an independent press over the past decade. They have brought local and national print and online news to areas that had none of that before.

Women journalists are among the most endangered because they dared to report, photograph and write. Some have already been targeted and even killed in the run-up to the Taliban takeover. They did not necessarily report anti-Taliban news; they committed the sin of being educated, working women. There will be no jobs and no tolerance for them now. To survive they must leave, and other countries must offer them refuge.

Chris George, executive director of IRIS, a refugee resettlement agency based in New Haven, said his organization and others are seeking partners such as churches and civic groups to help find Afghan refugees jobs, housing, and schools and integrate them into local communities. It struck me when he said, in his plea for support Tuesday in Hartford, "There is no better way to understand what is going on in the world" than to make friends with people who have no choice but to make a new life — in your town.

Understanding is key. Journalists specialize in it. It is what the women and men journalists of Afghanistan did.

Their own stories will be the biggest ones they ever report.

Back in mid-September 2001 the RNA almost canceled its annual convention in Cambridge, Mass. The airports had closed on Sept. 11 and most people feared flying. I was scheduled to give a beginner's seminar on covering religion. When the airports reopened just in time, those novice reporters were the first people on the flights. They put aside their own fears to learn what they needed to know and help us all understand. It is what journalists do.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.



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