Washington, D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat—US Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David S. Rhode was kidnapped by members of the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2008, and spent seven months in captivity before making what he described as a “foolhardy” break for freedom.
The escape attempt was successful, and the New York Times journalist made it home successfully. Following his safe return, Rhode has written a number of books and reports on the Middle East, most recently Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, David Rhode spoke about his kidnapping and how it has influenced him, his continuing interests in the Middle East, and how the region has changed over the past decade.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You were kidnapped in 2008 by the Taliban, and held for seven months before successfully escaping. How did this experience affect your life and views?
David S. Rhode: To be frank, many Muslims have been kidnapped and even killed by the Taliban and other extremist groups. The extremists have killed more Muslims than members of other religions. I was lucky because I was able to escape, but there are many moderate Muslims who suffered far more than I did. This experience allowed me to learn a lot about the extremists, but on the other hand, those who helped me to escape from these extremists were also Muslims. They were incomparably brave and honest. So what I am now trying to do is to help the American people understand that there are many moderate Muslims who are suffering as a result of extremism and the presence of these extremists, perhaps more so than anyone else. I want to put forward the idea that the Islamic world is broad and contains a multiplicity of cultures and ideologies.
Q: You were held for seven months. You must have some intense memories from your time with the Taliban. Could you share a few?
I recall the Afghan journalist who helped me escape and the Pakistani soldier who helped me to leave, and who apologized to me [for the kidnapping]. There are brave people who helped me without whom I would not be alive today. I know that there are extremists, but I believe that such figures don’t represent most Muslims. The group that kidnapped me said that they did this in order to serve Islam, but they were merely looking for any excuse to carry out criminal acts that have nothing to do with religion.
Q: Given your treatment at the hands of the Taliban, what attracted you to write about the Middle East?
I believe that America does not have the complete picture regarding the Middle East region in terms of its different peoples and culture. For this reason, I tried to put forward this view of the region, something that allows us to deal with the region in a positive manner. Secondly, I want to change the American people’s view of the Middle East, bringing it closer to reality. It is important to listen closely to what the moderates there say, and to learn from them. This is my main reason for writing about the Middle East and traveling there to report on things on the ground. The Middle East has changed now; in fact, the entire world has changed. We are passing through a complicated time and it is difficult to make judgments; however, I am seeking to pay close attention to all the details and understand the precise nature of these changes. Despite this, I cannot say what the Egyptians, or Tunisians or Syrians, should do. They know more than I do.
Q: Following the Boston Marathon bombings, you wrote an article entitled “For American Muslims, dread,” in which you clarified the difference between moderates and extremists. You stressed that there is a war in the Islamic world between the moderates and extremists. Why did you choose this time to write such an article?
I wanted to clarify to the American people this long conflict between the many moderates and tolerant people in the Islamic world and the fanatics. I have covered a number of regions in the Islamic world, and I am very close to this issue. It is important that we support tolerance and moderation and do not grant the terrorists an opportunity to achieve their objectives to create a state of hated and disharmony.
Q: Your new book is entitled Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East. What role would you like to see the US play in this “new” Middle East?
The American role that I imagine is one of greater economic and developmental support for the region, moving away from military intervention. The Americans should carefully listen to their moderate allies in the region and benefit from their views regarding the best way to help. In reality, we do not listen to our regional allies enough. Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, previously addressed US officials, saying: “The best thing that we can do is to slow down and listen, and ask the people there: ‘How can we help you?’”
Q: Isn’t it true that US influence in the Middle East is at its weakest in decades, with some characterizing the US presence in the region now as totally non-existent? Could you say that the Obama Administration’s pursuit of this non-traditional foreign policy approach has, in fact, caused further disruption to the region, particularly in reference to the Syrian crisis?
Frankly, there is a lot of reluctance on the part of the US administration to engage in any active role regarding the current tragic situation playing out in Syria. The Obama Administration should have armed the moderate factions within the Syrian opposition to allow them to confront the better-armed Assad regime forces. A part of the Obama Administration’s concern and reluctance relates to the Iraqi experience, which was debilitating for the Americans. Iraq was an excellent lesson against intervention; however, the response of the US administration has been over the top. It is wrong to confuse the two and believe that every crisis represents another Iraq.
Q: What about those who oppose US involvement by playing up the similarity, claiming that Syria is another Iraq in the making?
This is truly what the US administration fears, and that is fine to some extent, but there is an excessive caution. We now see the repercussions of not getting involved with regards to the deteriorating situation in Syria, which has affected the stability of the entire region. In addition to this, the US must also not abandon its ethical values and principles.
Q: You have also commented about the situation in Egypt, saying that the Mursi government’s attempts to clamp down on satirist Bassem Youssef was a mistake. Do you still hold to this opinion?
The response of the Mursi government towards Bassem Youssef was one of the biggest mistakes that it made, and that affected its image. Egypt changed after the revolution, and there was no going back.
Q: You recently wrote an article almost apologizing for US press coverage of foreign affairs. What motivated this?
The American press is no longer as specialized as its was in the past, in terms of providing adequate support and attention to reporters in remote areas. It has become difficult for journalists to write about areas that are far away and which have complex cultural and political realities, particularity if they have not been present in the country for a suitable amount of time. The fast-moving nature of modern journalism has diminished [opportunities for] precise analysis and coverage. However, there is also a positive side, namely the emergence of distinguished journalists in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere. It is via these journalists that we can get the most important and valuable information.