Christiane Amanpour on her new doc, Generation Islam

by John Dugan

Published Aug 11, 2009 

CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour debuts her latest documentary, Generation Islam, Thursday, August 13, (9pm, 12am, and 3am ET, and 8pm, 11pm, 2am CT). In the two-hour Generation Islam, Amanpour takes viewers to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza for a look at the battle for the hearts and minds of the youth in the Muslim world. I had a chance to talk to Amanpour (a master correspondent in my book) this morning—after sharing some stories about lost wallets, we delved into the implications of her latest fascinating report.

Time Out Chicago: You’re a mom, is that right?
Christiane Amanpour: Yes.

TOC: Was that an inspiration for this documentary?
CA: Well, the real inspiration was what President Obama said during his inauguration and then subsequently about a new way forward with the Muslim world and about the U.S. cannot afford another generation of Muslims that view the U.S. as the enemy, so that was the inspiration. Now, I think it’s really, really useful to go to the heart of the matter, which is to the youth, and see what are their hopes and dreams, what are their opportunities, what are their deprivations, and what are the chances of them growing into a community and a society and a nation of people who make a positive contribution to the world? The fact that I’m a mother obviously adds to the texture of what I care about in this regard and it makes you realize how incredibly important this future and the next generation is, and that’s where the investment should be made.

TOC: Does this feel like the right way to tell the story right now?
CA: Well, listen, there’s many, many ways to do it. This is the way that we decided to do it, but there are many ways to do it: You could have taken just one story and done an hour on it; you could have gone to different countries. We focused on this specifically because Afghanistan and Pakistan are the focus of Obama’s new administration, and so is the Middle East, and, specifically, the Palestinian situation, which is the second hour, that is the big swamp which drains goodwill from the United States throughout the Muslim world, because of what’s still unresolved between the Palestinians and the Israelis, so we really wanted to look at that as well.

TOC: The Taliban are targeting women and attacking any sort of modern role for women as early as school age. I was wondering if you think that’s something that’s been underreported.
CA: The Taliban basically made their name, if you like, in a very bad way because of their despicable treatment of women when they were in charge of Afghanistan back in the mid-'90s, and they had kept young girls from going to school. Schools had to take place, if at all—they were underground schools. Very brave women would agree to teach young girls, but it was all in secretness. If they got found out, it was in penalty of all sorts of punishment. And since the Taliban were routed by the U.S. and others after 2001, you know, they have felt, they have targeted girl schools and other women’s activities because they know that education and the empowerment of women is directly a vote against them and against the kind of extremism and militarism that they want to propagate. So for them it’s sort of a battle for survival right now. And while there are lots of women’s schools or lots of girls' schools which have been targeted and which we report on, nonetheless, education and the amount of education which has been brought to girls now is one of the big successes and very, very important.

TOC: I felt like that was another thing that was very surprising to me—how the locals are really cherishing this sort of opportunity to join the modern world in some way.
CA: I think that’s a very important message for your readers to understand. The conventional wisdom is that Afghanistan is hostile to any strangers. Everybody points to how they pushed back the British, you know, more than a hundred years ago, how they pushed back the Soviet Union in the ‘80s, and the thing is that they’re different now. It’s a different country. They regard the United States as coming not as occupiers but as liberators and to help them move forward. So they really do want to be part of the modern world, and if not all of them, then all of them really do want to have a better life, to be able to give their children a better life, to be able to provide for their families. They want something different than what they’ve had to put up with over the last many decades. And I think what’s really important to know is that with a little strategic spending and strategic targeting you can achieve a huge amount in Afghanistan. And I think that’s a very important point.

TOC: Sure, and I think there’s almost a clear choice in terms of what the U.S. government is doing in the example of the bombing increase and the civilian casualties.

This is bleeding the goodwill for the United States; there was so much goodwill for the United States and in the last several years this going after the Taliban and the immense number of civilian casualties caused—which now is over a thousand, according to the latest U.N. figures this year alone, I think, you might want to check that, but they just put out a new report—is really sapping the goodwill, and that’s a real problem.

TOC: One thing that you didn’t touch on, and I was sort of interested in was the kind of dollar figures you’re talking about. Because really, to build a school in some of these smaller places is probably on the order of the cost of a couple of laser-guided bombs.

Oh, much less, and your point is precisely correct that it costs very little comparatively to build a school and the reward is exponentially huge, and that’s why it’s such an amazing thing what Greg Mortenson does, because for very little money he actually builds, has built schools and schools in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, and it makes a big difference because it provides a clear alternative, it’s the alternative towards progress and a more open education versus, you know, militarism and poverty. And I think that’s very, very important. I think also, you know, many Americans think, “Well, you know, Afghanistan can’t be turned into a little America so what’s the point?” But that misses the point. Because winning in Afghanistan is not about turning it into a replica of the United States or Europe or whatever, it’s about making it stable and prosperous within its own experience and giving a future for its young people. And any society in which there’s no future for the young people is a society at risk. And that’s what we touch on throughout the two hours—that young people, whether they be in Gaza, in Pakistan, or in Iran, which we don’t actually visit, but wherever you might look in the Muslim world, if the young people don’t have a future, the entire society is at risk and therefore, you know, many of us are at risk.

TOC: Right, and I was going to bring up Saudi Arabia as an example where there should be a fantastic education system; there should be many more opportunities for civil and professional life. Someone used this phrase in The Economist, there’s this fever underneath, there’s this building of expectations for life that are not being met. Even in places that have a very tightly structured society, the thing that kept occurring to me was the lack of institutions attuned to really what people want, even before you get to a democratic society.

There’s so much traditionalism and conservatism, I mean in the religious and cultural sense, that leaders, even though they know probably what’s right and what’s the best path for the future, still play these drudging and weaving games with the religious establishment and that hurts their country as a whole and it slows down progress and it makes the whole prospect for youth and therefore stability much more risky.

TOC: Going in a different direction, you visit some people who have lost some very close loved ones and from a journalistic perspective, is it hard to remain impartial? Or are you of the mind that the truth itself is never going to remain impartial, it’s always going to tell a story?

CA: I don’t have a problem with this impartiality thing, I know that, because I think that is the bread and butter in the currency of good journalism, is to feed the facts and present the truth, and there is a fact-based truth and a fact-based reality, and that’s my job as a journalist to present it, not to present any of this or any of the investigations that I do within a political lens or within a political framework. Because I want to give viewers a real sense of what’s going on, not a real sense of what I believe is going on, or what I believe should happen. Of course, no, I don’t bring in my feelings or my partiality, but anybody, I’m sure can agree that children are the future, young people are the future, and you have to give them hope and the prospect of a real, tangible future, otherwise whether they be in Chicago or New York or Kabul or Islamabad or Gaza City or wherever, they’re going to get waylaid from a progressive path and they’re going to fall into all sorts of trouble and I think that’s universal with young people.

Photo: Andrew Tkach

TOC: I really like that you actually interview children and get them to speak their own minds. This is very effective at telling the story. People who don’t normally engage in consuming hard news a lot, they can understand the idea that a child who’s living in this situation has not got a lot to hope for.

CA: And therefore their whole future is at risk. And I agree, I hope this does connect at that level. I think that, again, children are children, young people are young people anywhere, and what I can came away with, the most amazing thing for me was how easy it would be to win over the hearts and minds of all these young people, don’t necessarily win them over to be, you know, want to be Americans, but to win them over to a stable, prosperous, tolerant future, one that doesn’t involve them seeking their future with militants or extremists. That for me was the greatest source of optimism and hope after doing this investigation and coming up with this two-hour documentary. And I think conversely, when the U.S. goes in and does things like overthrow the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which is a very good thing, not to follow up with the promises, or not to follow up on the promises it made, is dangerous, and that puts in jeopardy and at risk everything that is achieved by going in in the first place.

TOC: Whenever you create this vacuum, a power vacuum or institutional vacuum, there’s an opportunity on both sides. The example sometimes touched on is Hamas built up many more community programs and health care and education to be this multiheaded party that interacts with people 24/7. I think you’re exactly right if you don’t take advantage of that institutional vacuum and start fulfilling people’s needs, someone else is going to do it.

CA: Yeah, and I think some Americans worry that this is spending too much money on some far off, distant country or dream. But what I say is this: America is already spending  huge amounts of money in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, all those kinds of places; these are places that are pivotal for America’s future security. But what America is not doing smartly, it’s not spending smartly; it’s not investing in infrastructure. I believe right now, the humanitarian side of the war in Afghanistan is very chaotic, is very undisciplined, is not smart, and in many instances is throwing good money after bad. And so I strongly believe that if President Obama is talking not just about a surge in military but a surge on the diplomatic and civilian front as well that this really needs to be taken in hand and they really need to strategize and prioritize and spend smartly and invest smartly so that there’s a good return on that investment. Because right now, from what I can gather, it’s all being sort of outsourced to various NGOs who may mean well but there’s so much duplication, there’s so much repetition, there’s so little real grassroots infrastructure. You’re not going to rebuild a nation or give the young people hope for the future just by little ad hoc efforts to build a school here or a clinic there. It has to be part of a coherent whole, and that’s what needs to come, and I believe if that is implemented it really, really will make a massive, substantial difference.

TOC: That was actually going to be my next question, or tie into it, which is do we really need a Marshall Plan?
CA: That’s the general, that’s the nickname given to successful nation building. For some reason American politicians are allergic to the term "nation building," but that is what has to happen. That’s what they’re doing anyway, they call it by a different name, but you can’t do it on the cheap and it has to be done smartly. Right now, they’re spending more money than they need to, because they’re wasting it! So let’s be sensible about how you spend, let’s be sensible about nation building, and I strongly believe that it’s possible to do it smartly, strategically, and effectively and it will provide dividends, just like it did after World War II in Europe and Japan for forever!

TOC: Yeah, and that’s so funny that the term nation-building causes people to break out hives when if you look at Japan and Germany…
CA: They’re amongst the world’s strongest democracies today, and the most stable allies of the United States.

TOC: I spent a little time working for Amnesty International after college and I used to get this question from people that were very informed but felt ultimately helpless. They would say, “What can I do, do I lobby my congressman, how do I bring about change? Do I volunteer for a group that goes in on the ground?”
CA: There are multiple ways to do it, any number of those ways can be done. You can either do it individually if you are able to, you can do it whether it’s contributing to a health project or a health-care project or an educational project or whatever it might be. But I do think that Americans do need to start telling their elected officials that what happens overseas matters to us, that what you do in our name matters to us. So you’re over in Afghanistan, okay you waged a successful war, but it’s still going on eight years after the fact. Why is that? You’ve got to do it right, you’ve got to do it better, and we will support you if we think you’re doing it right. So, I think Americans need to help their elected officials get a reality check on what’s important to them, and Americans said very strongly in this last election that what they wanted, one of the key things they were looking for in a new president, was to restore America’s good standing and influence in the world. And you can’t have influence unless you’re going to be wise in how you project your power and how you nation-build! So I think wisdom at the highest levels of leadership in the United States is very, very important for these kinds of massive tasks.

TOC: Do you think is there also a challenge in that things in the United States, we’re still digging ourselves out of this financial collapse…
CA: But you know, there’s always an excuse. And I was very disappointed that President Obama, right after the financial collapse, basically the first thing he did was slash foreign spending, which is already at an all-time low compared to all the other developed countries. The United States spends a shockingly low percentage of its national budget on foreign spending, on international aid, and development, and it cannot seek to project its power if it continues in that way. Not only project power, I don’t mean that militarily, I mean project its influence and to hope to have a stabilizing effect for its own good and for the good of the rest of the world.

TOC: It is interesting in the documentary at how many points, unsolicited, people would say, “We do like America, we want to be like America,” but not in the very shallow, “We want blue jeans way,” but in a “We want liberation," "we want...
CA: “We want a future.” Yeah, “We want a modern future, a progressive future.” It’s a very small percentage of people who support the Taliban or who support the extremists. And the polls show that around the Middle East that’s the case, particularly in the Afghan-Pakistan area, support for extremists has really plummeted. And that’s a huge, important development that should be capitalized on and not wasted.

TOC: The thing that does occur to me that is so different is we went through an industrial revolution, we sort of reached modernity in all these different stages and the '60s were a different kind of liberation for Americans. Is there some sort of patience, I think there was one case where someone in Gaza was saying that people are very impatient here, but in a way, just in the nature of history, a lot of these things aren’t going to happen overnight.
CA: Yeah, but a lot of it takes political leadership right now. We’ve moved so far ahead from the days of the development of the United States or other industrialized nations, there’s so, things can happen much, much quicker these days, and a lot of it is due to political leadership whether it be on the ground or whether it be the United States or others who are dealing with those countries. Again I think it’s leadership, it’s the ability to resolve conflicts to give the people on the ground something to invest in, something to believe in and something to hope in.

TOC: Have you noticed a parallel, I kept hearing this parallel when they were talking about the psychology of young people looking for a symbol of power within the community, it immediately reminded me of inner city kids with drug gangs.
CA: Yes, I think you can relate all of this to certain aspects of your own culture.

TOC: From a policy standpoint, it’s kind of interesting because it almost makes you think if the administration could learn how to put things in the right direction in one place they could apply those lessons to another place. I almost feel like there should be an agency that this is what they do, not a Peace Corps but a real society-building agency to do that kind of thing in places where they need help.
CA: Hmm, that would be good.

TOC: Do you feel like within the documentary, there’s a balance of hope and fear?

TOC: I did find the interviews with the young militants are scary, but not that scary. It was funny to find out that the guy had a job offer as a journalist—hilarious in fact. It kind of makes you want to tear his headdress off and be like, “What are you doing?”
CA: Yeah, exactly, see that also is the hope, because that means there are a lot of people, who, with a different set of opportunities, would not be in this fight! And I think that’s the key, that’s the key to all of this. In Afghanistan, I spoke to people, many of whom told me, including, you know, you saw in the documentary a boy who was recruited to do a suicide attack, and half of them don’t know what they’re being recruited to do; they’re just sent to these madrassas and other places for a free education and free shelter by their poverty-stricken families, so a lot of it has got to do with poverty, with desperation, with no other avenue. And they are preyed upon by those who would use them for their own extremist, militant uses. I know, certainly, that there are many young, poverty- stricken people in Afghanistan who will take the $5 or $10 that the Taliban offer them to place an I.E.D. not because they believe in it or want to kill Americans but because they want to feed their families! So this is the layer that needs to be scraped off and won over by giving them a better opportunity. There’s obviously always going to be a hard core of really bad people who want to do bad and militant things, but I think that the vast majority are just looking for some money and a better chance. That applies to both Gaza and Afghanistan.

TOC: I thought it was so interesting that the madrassas are willing to or are interested in having their curriculum developed. I think madrassas have been painted as these hot spots of radicalism.
CA: A lot of them are, but a lot of them aren’t.

TOC: Thanks so much for your time.
CA: Thank you.

Generation Islam debuts August 13 at 8pm CT on CNN.