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Should Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi be at Yale?
Note to Readers: After the New York Times Magazine published a February cover article about a former Taliban spokesman who is taking courses at Yale, the Yale Alumni Magazine received a number of letters, both from alumni and from other interested people, asking about the campus response. (This magazine is not published by the university, but by an alumni-based nonprofit.) We asked Trey Popp ’97, a Philadelphia-based writer, to report on the reactions of students, faculty, and alumni.
When Yale gears up for summer classes, the university throws its doors open a bit wider than it does during the rest of the year. Pre-med students knocking out the organic chemistry requirement are joined on campus by high school juniors, foreign language pupils, and a healthy international contingent. But when courses got under way last July, there was one student in town whose inconspicuousness cloaked a truly extraordinary life story. His name was Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, he was 26 years old, and until late September of 2001, he had been an ambassador-at-large for the Taliban.
During summer and into the fall semester, most of Yale was oblivious to the presence on campus of a former spokesman for a government notorious for human rights abuses and denying education to girls. To his unwitting classmates he looked like an ordinary guy, “a random Afghan taking classes,” as one student recalled. But midway through spring semester, everything changed.
On February 26, Hashemi’s photo ran on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and a lengthy profile appeared inside. Suddenly, Yale found itself the target of a passionate campaign of criticism in conservative media and the blogosphere. “Are there no limits to how arrogant and out-of-touch America’s Ivy League schools can get?” wrote John Fund of OpinionJournal.com, the website of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Letters of complaint and confusion came in from alumni and non-alumni alike. (“My son was considering applying there,” an Ohioan e-mailed the Yale Alumni Magazine. “I’m not so sure now. Why is a former Taliban member allowed to go to school there?”) Yale president Richard Levin asked for a review of the “special student” program that admits older students, such as Hashemi, to take courses in Yale College without earning a degree. Levin also strengthened the standard for the special-student BA program Hashemi has now applied to. (See “The Specials” at right, and Levin’s statement.)
Hashemi’s presence triggered a campuswide debate that often crossed political lines. A prominent campus conservative defended Hashemi’s admission, and so did the political action coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center. A prominent campus liberal questioned it. Middle Easterners spoke both for and against. And all over Yale, the case of Rahmatullah Hashemi tested basic assumptions about the purpose and moral potential of a Western liberal arts education.
The media critique began with John Fund, who criticized Yale’s decision to admit Hashemi in an extensive series of columns on OpinionJournal.com, as well as on the editorial page of the print Wall Street Journal and in the Yale Daily News. Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes devoted several segments to the controversy and sent a reporter and cameraman to campus to question a visibly uncomfortable, unwilling Hashemi.
Alumni responded, in relatively small numbers—but vocally. Clint Taylor ’96 and three colleagues started a campaign called “Nail Yale” on the conservative website TownHall.com. They encouraged alumni to send Yale plastic fingernails in lieu of annual financial gifts—an idea inspired by the rumored Taliban practice of pulling women’s fingernails out as punishment for wearing nail polish. In an interview for the Yale Alumni Magazine, Taylor contended that Yale’s decision to admit Hashemi was inconsistent with ethical standards it espouses in other areas. “How does such a liberal, inclusive university extend an invitation to an officer of such a brutal, theocratic, fascist regime? Yale recently had the good sense to divest from Sudan. The Janjaweed there are doing the same things that the Taliban did, for the same reasons. Why can’t they recognize the similarity?”
The Yale administration, admissions office, and alumni association received several angry letters of complaint from alumni and the public in March. Inge Reichenbach, vice president of development, says her office received 50 to 100 letters packed with plastic fingernails and human fingernail clippings. (Most, she says, came from non-alumni, and many arrived from a single address.) Reichenbach says the correspondence her office has received from alumni has been diverse. “Some people felt very strongly that this is not a situation that Yale should have put itself in, and others were very supportive, emphasizing that Yale is an educational institution, and it’s here to educate people.”
One Yale employee resigned during the controversy. Alexis Surovov ’02, assistant director of annual giving at the Law School, sent an anonymous e-mail to Clint Taylor and his colleague Debbie Bookstaber ’00, ’00MA. According to Taylor the e-mail asked, “Are you retarded?” and disparaged their record of contributions to Yale. Bookstaber’s husband traced the e-mail, and the Law School suspended Surovov pending an investigation into whether he had used information in donor databases improperly. By late April he had resigned. “We deeply regret his inappropriate and unauthorized interaction with Yale University alumni/ae which was reported in the press,” said the dean’s statement, “and we apologize to those affected by it.”
For the post part, however, the administration responded to the controversy by declining public comment. (The Levin administration has a policy of never speaking publicly about individual students.) The university’s only comment on the case of Rahmatullah Hashemi was a 166-word prepared statement, issued March 29 that explained the special-student program and Hashemi’s visa status, and said: “We hope that his courses help him understand the broader context for the conflicts around the world. We acknowledge that some are criticizing Yale for allowing Mr. Hashemi to take courses here, but we hope that critics will also acknowledge that universities are places that must strive to increase understanding, especially of the most difficult issues that face the nation and the world.”
The administration’s public silence has left it unclear exactly who participated in the decision to admit Hashemi. Richard Shaw, who was Yale’s dean of admissions until he left for Stanford last summer, talked enthusiastically about Hashemi with the Times Magazine writer (“This is a person to be reckoned with and who could educate us about the world”) but has declined comment since. The standard process for admitting nondegree special students calls for a decision by the undergraduate admissions office. It allows for, but doesn’t require, further consultation. The Yale Alumni Magazine has learned that, as is typical with admissions decisions, neither Yale’s president nor the dean of the college took part in the decision to admit Hashemi. Yale’s president told the Yale Daily News he would not take part in deciding on Hashemi’s application to the special-student BA program.
The Times Magazine story portrayed Hashemi as a complex and largely sympathetic character, though not necessarily one filled with contrition about his past. He had joined the Taliban, he told the Times, because he initially saw it as the antidote to the corruption and chaos in Afghanistan. But after returning home from a 2001 American speaking tour, he became increasingly disillusioned with the Taliban leadership. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which were masterminded by Osama bin Laden from an Afghanistan refuge, Hashemi evacuated his parents, wife, and two small children to Pakistan. He returned to Kandahar for a short while—long enough to experience the bombing and witness the chaos that followed—and then rejoined his family in exile. In late 2003 he successfully cleared his name with American authorities in Afghanistan.
It was an alumnus who steered Hashemi to Yale. After he returned to Afghanistan, Hashemi reconnected with a man named Mike Hoover, an American filmmaker who had befriended Hashemi several years before on one of his frequent trips to Afghanistan. Hoover in turn connected Hashemi with his longtime friend Bob Schuster ’67, a lawyer in Jackson, Wyoming, who gradually assumed the role of patron. But for Schuster’s persistent efforts—and an educational charity he and Hoover set up to finance tuition costs—it is doubtful Hashemi would have ended up in New Haven. Schuster was primarily interested in helping a young man he admired. But the idea that Hashemi could be a catalyst for mutual understanding was also a consideration. “Rahmatullah Hashemi can be a bridge between our countries and our cultures,” he says now. “He’s going to learn about our values, learn about our culture and about our democracy.” Beginning with an informal call to the provost’s office, Schuster eventually succeeded in bringing Hashemi to the attention of Shaw, then dean of admissions.
Hashemi had first visited Yale during a 2001 U.S. tour as spokesman for the Taliban, in which he defended the Taliban’s record on women’s rights and opium growing, as well as the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas, in a debate with Harold Hongju Koh, now dean of the Yale Law School. Economics professor Gustav Ranis moderated the debate. “I thought he was, for a 22-year-old, extremely articulate and extremely bright and made the best of a bad case,” says Ranis. “It was quite a performance, although I didn’t buy what he had to say.”
What Hashemi had to say as a paid representative of the Taliban was either specious or outright offensive, depending on how charitable an audience member wanted to be. He maintained that the Taliban, which was then denying education to school-aged girls, was actually quite good on women’s rights issues, and furthermore, that its decision to demolish the ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiyan was born of good intentions. Five years later, Hashemi would tell the New York Times that “inside I was dying” during the debate, but that deviating from his talking points would have meant trouble back home. At the time, Ranis thought there was more to Hashemi than the propaganda he was charged with spreading. “He was clearly embarrassed by the destruction of those two Buddha statues,” says Ranis. “That’s an indication that he wasn’t a complete puppet.” Ranis supports Hashemi’s presence at Yale. “He comes from a background where he probably didn’t have any alternative visions of the world at all. This gives him a chance to experience that.”
After he returned to Yale as a student, Hashemi’s life probably involved frequent decisions about how much to reveal. Just being Afghani in America was problematic. “Once, he went to get a haircut,” says his friend Fahad Khan ’07, from Pakistan. “The barber lady asked him where he was from, and he said, ‘Take a guess.’” She tried Greece and a few other countries. “And when he told her Afghanistan, she was like, ‘Oh, are you carrying a bomb with you?’”
At Yale, close friends of Hashemi’s knew his history with the Taliban. Others knew he had been involved with the Taliban government, but had never discussed its extent with him. Still others were taken by surprise when the Times Magazine article came out. “When I first saw his face on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, I was nauseous,” says Eli Luberoff ’08, who tutored Hashemi in math. “I almost didn’t want to face it.”
Luberoff, like many who know and like Hashemi, has come to accept his explanations for his involvement with the Taliban. “I understand his motivations, and that not everyone in an evil regime is evil, which was hard for an idealist like me to accept.”
As Khan describes those motivations: “He was a refugee in Pakistan, he had grown up in poverty, and the warlords were tearing his country apart. Initially the Taliban were seen as a force that could bring peace. More than human rights, more than education, Afghanistan needed peace at that time. You can’t talk of human rights and education when people are being killed on the streets. I remember from reading newspapers in Pakistan that everyone in Pakistan supported the Taliban—very few people now support them. And Rahmatullah was a 16-year-old, with no formal education, and he wanted to go back to his country.”
Hashemi’s background brings a rare perspective to Yale discussion sections. Michelle Tolman Clarke, the graduate teaching assistant for Hashemi’s Introduction to Political Philosophy course, notes that “the task of a class like that is to get students to think hard about their own assumptions”—but political homogeneity among Yale’s mostly privileged, American undergraduates can make that a challenge. She remembers that Hashemi brought a new reading of, for example, Thomas Hobbes and his conception of the state of nature. Most of her students dismiss Hobbes’s argument for exchanging liberty to get security in return. Hashemi defended it.
Most of Yale’s critics in the media have been political conservatives. But at Yale itself, the debate over Hashemi’s presence often crosses political lines. Yale lecturer and diplomat-in-residence Charles Hill, a conservative who served in the Reagan administration, champions Hashemi’s admission. “We as Americans need to be able to recognize what it is we want to achieve in the world,” he says. “To put it simply, we want to bring people who are outside the established international system closer inside it, inside its norms and practices and its ways of doing cooperative endeavors in a basically civil way. If we can’t understand this, and push them away, we are setting ourselves in concrete to be in a condition of hostility permanently with a huge area of the world.”
On the other end of the political spectrum is Law School dean Koh, Hashemi’s opponent in the 2001 debate at Yale, who was an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Clinton administration. After the Times Magazine article came out, Koh became one of the most prominent academics questioning Hashemi’s presence at Yale when he expressed concern to the Yale Daily News about admitting Hashemi as a degree student: “It would be good to know more about how he came to work for the Taliban in the first place, and whether he’s fully repudiated their views.”
Hashemi, like the Yale administration, declined to speak with American reporters in the weeks after the original article came out. He withdrew from a scheduled interview with this magazine, saying he needed to concentrate on his course work. As a result, his public comments so far have not illuminated his current political ideas, and many at Yale are cautious about making judgments without knowing more. “There are a lot of competing liberal values at stake here,” says law student Justin Cox ’08JD. “There are concerns about the role of the academy in indoctrinating liberal values and tolerance, the ability of human beings to repent and change, and our willingness to forgive. The reality is that I don’t have enough information to make any conclusion, which is one reason that Yale’s continued silence is frustrating to a lot of people. And also Hashemi’s silence. There are some questions that, if answered, would clear up a lot of ambiguity.”
Hashemi’s friends say he is unlikely to talk about his current beliefs in detail. They suggest that, since his wife and two small children are currently living as refugees in western Pakistan, where the United States’ popularity is at a very low ebb, it is possible he fears that anything he says to assuage his American critics might endanger his family.
The fact that so little is known about Hashemi’s unlikely journey to New Haven has tempered the reactions of some who might ordinarily be more critical. The Yale Women’s Center is a good example. In January 2000, its political action coordinator, Grace Rollins ’01, participated in a protest of a Pierson College master’s tea with Taliban official Abdul Hakeem Mujahid. But Christine Slaughter ’07, Rollins’s current successor, has taken a different stance toward Hashemi: “If this person is here for the sake of eliminating ignorance and talking to other people—and being taught by women, and in classes with his female peers—I believe that’s something that can be a very positive thing.”
Alumnus Robert Selzer ’97, who took “Introduction to Political Philosophy” with Hashemi last fall, is also optimistic. “I have faith in Yale’s mission as a marketplace of ideas, as a place that, at its best, graduates students who have endeavored faithfully to figure out the best way to live,” says Selzer. “Intolerance struggles to survive at Yale, generally. Even if he was actively calling for veiling the women of Yale and endorsing terrorist tactics, I can think of no better way to get him to change his mind than to sic a couple thousand Yale students on him for four years.”
Many on campus—both for and against Hashemi’s admission—say that Yale must not apply an ideological litmus test in its admissions process. But some draw a line between ideology and action. Political scientist Frances Rosenbluth, who favors the decision to admit Hashemi, acknowledges, “What people are upset about is that he was not only a member but a spokesman for this organization.”
Abbas Amanat, a professor of modern Middle East history, agrees with others who have said that one reason the Taliban initially drew support from Afghanistan’s rural population was their priority to make the country secure at almost any cost. But he adds, “If you go by the rationale that you need to bring people to Western institutions, there are people in Afghanistan that are far more deserving. We should give people room for regret and remorse. But I don’t necessarily think that they should receive special treatment on the grounds of what they’ve done in the past. There is no way anybody can justify being spokesman for the Taliban and have ethical validity.”
In a way it comes down to faith. Hashemi is an unknown quantity. It is impossible to know how much he has changed from his Taliban days, or even whether transformation is what he seeks. Those who have gotten to know him describe Hashemi as an intelligent and open-minded person who reflects deeply on what others have to say. But even some of his friends wish he would respond to his critics with something other than silence. At a deeper level, the debate over his presence at Yale is about how much faith can be placed in a liberal arts education itself. History professor Donald Kagan questions the idea “that somehow we will redeem him—that the experience of Yale will be like cleansing waters.”
Political science professor Steven Smith, like Kagan a political conservative, says, “It’s a very optimistic view to think that if you expose people to certain ideas, those ideas will somehow stick, and the right ideas will make a difference. We all know the stories about the Nazis listening to Beethoven and reading Schiller. What did the great classics of German humanistic culture do for them?”
One fundamental question spurred by Rahmatullah Hashemi’s presence on campus is: what new responsibilities come with Yale’s stated goal of becoming a global institution? The university has increasingly been expanding its reach in China, India, and beyond. Insofar as Yale wants to address itself to a global community, it may face more decisions like the one about Hashemi. The debate over how Yale should define its own community and its broader mission in the world extends beyond the case of a particular student; it draws the university into far wider conflicts. Institutions of learning are bound to play a role, for better or worse, in their resolution.
Yale’s “Special Student” Programs
One result of the controversy over Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi is that the Yale administration is now taking a closer look at a little-known pair of programs that have been bringing older students to Yale since the 1970s. Although many people got the impression that Hashemi had been admitted to Yale as an undergraduate, he was admitted as a “nondegree special student.” This means he is able to take courses at Yale but is not a candidate for a Yale diploma. The program typically includes 30 to 40 students at any given time. They are not offered on-campus housing. The tuition—$2,300 per course—is less than the full tuition for conventional Yale College undergraduates ($31,460 a year for this academic year—or about $3,495 per course for a student taking nine courses), but there is no financial aid available for tuition, room, or board.
According to his friend and sponsor Bob Schuster ’67, Hashemi submitted an application in late April to the Eli Whitney Students Program, an undergraduate degree program for nontraditional students. The Eli Whitney program, originally known as the Degree Special Students Program, was established in 1981 and currently enrolls 35 people. The program allows students to attend Yale part-time and to take up to seven years to finish their bachelor’s degrees. As in the nondegree program, they pay $2,300 per course and are not eligible for financial aid. Eli Whitney students are assigned a residential college affiliation, but they are not offered housing on campus.
Anyone with a high school diploma (or, like Hashemi, a GED) is eligible to apply to either program. Applications—some 60 to 70 per year for the nondegree program, 30 to 40 per year for the Eli Whitney program—are reviewed by a committee in the undergraduate admissions office.
Most of the early students in the program were members of the World War II generation who had missed out on college because of military service or early marriage. Until 1986, they were awarded a different degree—Bachelor of Liberal Studies—that did not require them to declare a major. (They now earn a standard Yale BA or BS.) But more recently, the degree-seeking students have become more varied in age and life circumstances, and many have used their Yale education to pursue a career.
Even before the Hashemi controversy flared up, these changes had begun to concern some administrators, who feared the program was becoming a kind of back door to Yale College for less qualified people. In his statement of April 17 (see page 32), President Levin raises questions about the Eli Whitney program’s academic standards, citing an admission rate three times higher than that of the regular Yale College applicant pool. Levin has ordered a review of both nontraditional programs with an eye toward changes next year, but he has told the admissions office to apply a standard for the Eli Whitney program—effective immediately—that is “equivalent to that applied to candidates for regular admission to Yale College.”
Such a change may affect Hashemi’s application. Although the New York Times Magazine account said he was doing well in his Yale courses—with a 3.33 grade point average in the fall semester—he is handicapped by his fourth-grade education, particularly when it comes to college-level math and science. On the other hand, those close to him testify to his keen intellect and his facility with four languages. Eli Luberoff ’08, who has tutored Hashemi in math since the fall, says that Hashemi caught up quickly on basic mathematics. “He’s a phenomenally brilliant guy,” says Luberoff. The admissions office says that candidates will be notified of the decisions within two months of the May 1 deadline for applications.
“I don’t like the idea of closing doors and barring the way to people who are different or unappealing unless they pose a real physical threat to our students. I think we have a self-appointed mandate to be an international university, that is, to teach what we think ought to be taught and welcome people who seek that education and knowledge.”
“I would not feel comfortable with the idea that the admissions department would be applying a kind of ideological litmus test. But this particular case seems to press the extreme limits of what you might want. As others have said, what if someone had been a member of the KKK or the Aryan Nation—take any extremist group that you like, and how would you feel about that? Why should we give a pass to the Taliban?”
“He comes from the other side of a great divide that’s now at work in the world. So his experiences and views are bound to be instructional to us, and engaging with him is a good thing to do. It seems to me that as a prima facie matter he deserves benefit of the doubt in that he’s willing and wants to come here.”
“We have to stay as close as we can to our fundamental mission, which is education as traditionally understood, which our society supports most powerfully in many ways. Every time we step away from a very conventional understanding of our educational mission, I believe we run a powerful risk of betraying our responsibility. We don’t have the right to pursue the arrogant sense that we can anoint ourselves as people who are prepared to improve the world by any procedure other than those of the educational techniques that we employ normally.”
“I don’t think a human rights perspective provides a clear position saying that Yale was wrong to admit him or right to admit him. There are people with some level of responsibility for serious violations of the rights of others who do not belong in this sort of academic community, whose responsibility for human rights abuses is significant enough that they ought to be excluded. On the other hand, there are a lot of different levels of responsibility. The concept of second chances is also consistent with human rights. People deserve chances to change and redeem themselves, especially when they engaged in the conduct in question when they were young and have grown up in circumstances that are extremely distorting and confusing.”
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