Every now and then, some major news organization does a story about the horrors of "bacha bazi (boy play)" while trying to cover the cultural minefield that is semi-modern Afghanistan. The New York Times is the latest, with a major A1 report with a shocking new angle, which ran under the headline "U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies."
Journalists covering this story face one major problem of logic and language, one that we have written about in the past here at GetReligion. Since Afghanistan is governed by sharia law, which forbids sodomy and sex before marriage, how do news organizations explain this Muslim culture's long history of men forcing boys into sexual slavery?
This question has been especially important in the recent history of this war-torn land because bacha bazi activity among Afghan leaders played a major role in the rise of the morally and doctrinally strict Taliban.
This Times piece had major news to report and it delivered the goods in unforgettable fashion. However, this piece also took a novel approach to the crucial question of the moral status of bacha bazi under Islamic law and traditions -- it ignored it completely.
First, here is the heart of this stunning story:
Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene -- in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.
The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban. But soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages -- and doing little when they began abusing children.
“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did -- that was something village elders voiced to me.”
Now, the Times reports, tensions in the U.S. military are rising because some officers are being punished by their superiors -- potentially seeing their careers ruined -- because they have tried to stop child rape and sexual slavery.
So what is going on?
In short, U.S. commanders are trying extra hard not to pass moral judgement on a culture that is not their own. There are plenty of elite, sophisticated intellectuals and researchers who back this approach. Consider this 2007 quote from University of Chicago anthropologist Richard A. Shweder (hat tip to M.Z. "GetReligionista emeritus" Hemingway):
... The military voices ... had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming.
Where was this viewpoint published? On the op-ed page of The New York Times, naturally.
As I said, the new Times blockbuster includes zero content on what any of this has to do with sharia law and divisions inside Islam in Afghanistan. However, there are hints -- hints only -- that many locals, including parents of boys forced into bacha bazi, are furious about what is happening.
Might this affect the success or failure of American efforts there? The Times does note:
... The American policy of treating child sexual abuse as a cultural issue has often alienated the villages whose children are being preyed upon. The pitfalls of the policy emerged clearly as American Special Forces soldiers began to form Afghan Local Police militias to hold villages that American forces had retaken from the Taliban in 2010 and 2011.
This is where the Times piece has -- according to previous media reports -- a massive, gaping hole in its foundations.
It is one thing, for whatever reasons seemed justifiable to Times editors, to ignore what the laws and doctrines of Islam have to say about sin, sex and sodomy. It is something else to ignore the fact that some U.S. elites urged Army leaders to look the other way on these matters and that this has -- in the past and now in the present -- helped restore the appeal of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan.
As the Washington Post reported in 2012:
A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.
“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”
Let me stress, once again, that we are talking about a crucial element of the history of military conflict in this country.
I understand that the Times has a new and valid angle to report on this story -- that some U.S. officers are being punished because of they have rebelled against their leaders by trying to stop the systematic rape of boys. But how can the world's most powerful newsroom address this topic without (a) mentioning Islamic law and (b) discussing whether or not these U.S. policies are actually helping the Taliban?
Here is more from the Post, in 2012:
Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages. In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior. ...
During the Taliban era, men suspected of having sex with men or boys were executed. In the late 1990s, amid the group’s repressive reign, the practice of bacha bazi went underground. The fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 and the flood of donor money that poured into Afghanistan revived the phenomenon.
So American aid to the wealthy and worldly war lords basically funded the return of "boy play" as a major force in Afghan culture? Why would Times editors want to ignore that religious, moral and historical elements of this story?
UPDATE: Note the New York Times editorial on this issue. Similar structure, similar holes in the content. In particular, note that it does not address the roots of the U.S. policy of considering bacha bazi to be a cultural phenomenon, period.