What was the genesis of this story?
I've covered a lot of what's been referred to as the second front in the war on terror, the Southeast Asia wing of militant Islam. One of the stops along the jihadi highway is the southern Philippines. Since the 90s there's been this link to the world of global jihad, from a couple of the Bali bombers who are currently at large there to Ramzi Yusef and Khalid Sheik Muhammad. At the same time, Filipino Muslims have a much older, very legitimate complaint about a lack of representation in the central government and all that goes along with it—they have no money, no jobs, no education. I was very interested in assessing the gravity of the situation in the southern Philippines to see if it was different from what I'd seen in southern Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
And was it different?
Much, much different. In the longer view, militant Islam doesn't come to play in the fight for self-determination in the south—it does a bit, but not compared to the other places in southeast Asia where militant Islam has raised its head. There are pockets where that's not the case, but not in the vast majority of the country.
What's your opinion of the U.S. approach on Jolo?
What's going on in the Philippines is important and interesting because now we're seeing—in other places too—a larger move toward soft power, toward a non-military response to counter-terror, and this is the oldest model of that. It's not cutting edge, it's just common sense and sensitive application. What makes the Philippines also a bit different than say Afghanistan or Iraq is that the culture is not as hostile to America generally. One might argue, "It's the Philippines, of course it's working better," and that's true, but I definitely think there's something there that may be useful in other places.
What lessons could be applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where anti-Americanism is more ingrained?
An extremely high level of cultural awareness makes it much easier for the small number of special forces soldiers who are operating in the southern Philippines to build confidence. It's also important to have a deep understanding of the societal ills and what they are giving rise to. In the Philippines it's really about the money. This is a very impoverished population willing to turn to kidnapping to make its money.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the Philippines?
The degree to which society is feudal. Some people will say, "Look at how many female presidents the Philippines has had, so many women in high places," but the truth is that's just about families perpetuating their influence at the highest level.
Are there other places where a closer look would reveal that the situation is more complicated than our typical idea of Islamic militancy?
Probably everywhere. I don't want to downplay the role of religious-based violence, but at the same time, one thing that was heartening about the non-violent approach to counter-terror is the degree that almost by accident these programs also fix other problems. The Americans might give access to a $2000 well to people who were just peasants, and those people would have had no way to get access to water, and it wasn't that the U.S. was thinking, okay, who's the least empowered in this community, they were just thinking strategically. And it happens to continue to help undermine the feudal underpinning in a really positive way. It was heartening to write something that had positive elements of a U.S. presence, because it's so rare, and often it can be extremely disheartening to watch what we're doing around the world.
Should we rethink our idea of a "war on terror"?
I think we need to frame our response to fury at the American role around the world in a more thoughtful way. We need to break down some of our monolithic language. Language should be as precise as possible in trying to assess exactly what's going on in a given situation. I really tried with this piece to be extremely precise about what's going on there, even if it sometimes that complexity made the story harder to understand. Yes, the situation is confusing. I think in a way we're doomed by our eagerness to understand, because we don't want things to be difficult and we flatten them in trying to assess them.
What other regions have you reported from?
The Middle East, West and East Africa, South and Southeast Asia.
Many of those are unstable places. Do you think this kind of reporting is more dangerous for a woman than it might be for a man?
Actually I think the opposite is true, especially in the Muslim world. The double standard of protecting women actually works in the journalist's favor. Most violence is random, but if you wind up in a situation that's somewhat tense, you tend to have a little bit more leeway than a man would have. And in any case, when you're dealing at a high level people are more cognizant of the publication—it's not personal until you've established relationships with people.
What drew you to security reporting?
I'm really interested in how human rights and security overlap. These two principles that seem so contradictory often are not, often are interrelated in ways that we actually can assess and we actually can be smart about, and it doesn't have to be disaster after disaster leads to a rise in conflict.
I understand that you're also a poet—what's the link?
Yes! I have a book coming out in May, Wideawake Field (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). What's the link between poetry and non-fiction? Both attention to what's going on around you and attention to precision of language.
How did you get into journalism?
I lucked into a job at Vanity Fair for a few months—less than a year—and saw there that some of the country's best reporters were able to approach their editors and say, we need to look at what's going on in this or that country. And they would at least feel like they were making a positive difference. Whether it makes too much of a difference or not, the jury is very much out. I'd say no, but I hope that's not the case.
What was your first story?
Honor killings in the Middle East. That was before September 11th—it was in 2000. The most interesting thing about that story, which ends up being relevant now, is that it turns out honor crimes are cultural—they're just as prevalent in the Christian community as in the Muslim community. After that I got into looking a little bit at the Quran and its implication for human rights, before we got so aware of the Muslim world. And then once September 11th happened everybody and their mother needed a stringer. So that's how it started.
Were there any light moments in the Philippines?
The photographer, Meredith Davenport, is one of the funniest people I know. She is always able to bring levity to the long hours that story entails, and that's much appreciated. She's very funny, and she just loves to laugh, and that really helps long car rides or frustrating days of not feeling you're getting anywhere.