Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2006 / 29 Shevat 5766
John H. Fund
The Taliban's former spokesman is now a Yale student. Anyone see a problem with that?
Never has an article made me blink with astonishment as much as when I read in yesterday's New York Times magazine that Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, former ambassador-at-large for the Taliban, is now studying at Yale on a U.S. student visa. This is taking the obsession that U.S. universities have with promoting diversity a bit too far.
Something is very wrong at our elite universities. Last week Larry Summers resigned as president of Harvard when it became clear he would lose a no-confidence vote held by politically correct faculty members furious at his efforts to allow ROTC on campus, his opposition to a drive to have Harvard divest itself of corporate investments in Israel, and his efforts to make professors work harder. Now Yale is giving a first-class education to an erstwhile high official in one of the most evil regimes of the latter half of the 20th century — the government that harbored the terrorists who attacked American on Sept. 11, 2001.
"In some ways," Mr. Rahmatullah told the New York Times. "I'm the luckiest person in the world. I could have ended up in Guantanamo Bay. Instead I ended up at Yale." One of the courses he has taken is called Terrorism-Past, Present and Future.
Many foreign readers of the Times will no doubt snicker at the revelation that naive Yale administrators scrambled to admit Mr. Rahmatullah. The Times reported that Yale "had another foreigner of Rahmatullah's caliber apply for special-student status." Richard Shaw, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions, told the Times that "we lost him to Harvard," and "I didn't want that to happen again."
In the spring of 2001, I was one of several writers at The Wall Street Journal who interviewed Mr. Rahmatullah at our offices across the street from the World Trade Center. His official title was second foreign secretary; his mission was to explain the regime's decision to rid the country of two 1,000-year-old towering statues of Buddha carved out of rock 90 miles from the Afghan capital, Kabul. The archeological treasures were considered the greatest remaining examples of third- and fifth-century Greco-Indian art in the world. But Taliban leader Mullah Omar had ordered all statues in the country destroyed, calling them idols of infidels and repugnant to Islam.
Even Muslim nations like Pakistan denounced the move. Mr. Rahmatullah, who at the time claimed to be 24 but now says he was lying about his age and was actually two years younger, cut a curious figure in our office. He wore a traditional Afghan turban and white baggy pants and sported a full beard. His English, while sometimes elliptical, was smooth and colloquial. He made himself very clear when he said the West had no business worrying about the statues, because it had cut off trade and foreign aid to the Taliban. "When the world destroys the future of our children with economic sanctions, they have no right to worry about our past," he told us, according to my notes from the meeting.
He smiled as he informed us that the statues had been blown up with explosive charges only after people living nearby had been removed. He had no comment on reports that Mullah Omar had ordered 100 cows be sacrificed as atonement for the Taliban government's failure to destroy the Buddhas earlier.
As for Osama bin Laden, Mr. Rahmatullah called the Saudi fugitive a "guest" of his government and said it hadn't been proved that bin Laden was linked to any terrorist acts, despite his indictment in the U.S. for planning the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He said that if the embassy bombings were terrorist acts, then so was the Clinton administration's firing cruise missiles into his country in an attempt to kill bin Laden. "You killed 19 innocent people," he told us.
After the meeting I walked him out. As we passed a window, I vividly recall our stopping at a window as he stared up at the World Trade Center. We stood there for a minute chatting, but I don't recall what he said. He then left. I next thought about him a few months later, on Sept. 11, as I stood outside our office building covered in dust and debris staring at the remains of the towers that had just collapsed. I occasionally wondered what had happened to Mr. Rahmatullah. I assumed he either had died in the collapse of the Taliban regime, had been jailed, or was living quietly in the new, democratic Afghanistan.
From newspaper clips I knew that his visit to the Journal's offices was part of a PR tour. He visited other newspapers and spoke at universities, and the State Department had granted him a meeting with midlevel officials. None of the meetings went particularly well. At the University of Southern California, Mr. Rahmatullah expressed irritation with a question about statues that at that point hadn't yet been blown up. "You know, really, I am asked so much about these statues that I have a headache now," he moaned. "If I go back to Afghanistan, I will blow them."
Carina Chocano, a writer for Salon.com who attended several of his speeches in the U.S., noted the hostility of many of his audiences. "A lesser publicist might have melted down," she wrote. "But the cool, unruffled and media-smart Hashemi instead spun his story into a contemporary parable of ironic iconoclasm," peppering his lectures with "statue jokes."
But sometimes his humor really backfired. At a speech for the Atlantic Council, Mr. Rahmatullah was confronted by a woman in the audience who lifted the burkha she was wearing and chastised him for the Taliban's infamous treatment of women. "You have imprisoned the women — it's a horror, let me tell you," she cried. Mr. Rahmatullah responded with a sneer: "I'm really sorry to your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you."
A videotape of his cutting remark became part Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," and infuriated the likes of Mavis Leno, wife of "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno. Mrs. Leno helped found the Feminist Majority's Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan and devoted countless hours to focusing public attention on the plight of Afghanistan's women and girls. "I will never, ever abandon these women," she often said before the Taliban's overthrow. Here's hoping she has saved some of her outrage for Yale's decision to welcome Mr. Rahmatullah with open arms.
In his interview with the New York Times, Mr. Rahmatullah, said that if he had to do it all over, he would have been less "antagonistic" in his remarks during his U.S. road tour. "I regret the way I spoke sometimes. Now I would try to be softer. A little bit." Just a little?
Today, when he is asked if Afghanistan would be better off if the Taliban were still in charge, Mr. Rahmatullah, has a mixed answer: "Economically, no. In terms of security, yes. In terms of general happiness, no. In the long-term interests of the country? I don't think so. I think the radicals were taking over and doing crazy stuff. I regret when people think of the Taliban and then think of me — that feeling people have after they know I was affiliated with them is painful to me." Note that the government official who represented the Taliban abroad now claims to have been only "affiliated" with them.
Even though he evinces only semiregret for his actions in service to the Taliban, there is evidence that he has become quite a charmer. After the fall of the Taliban, he resumed a friendship he had developed with Mike Hoover, a CBS News cameraman who, according to a 2001 Associated Press story, had visited Afghanistan three times as a guest of the Taliban. Mr. Hoover inspired Mr. Rahmatullah to think about going to the U.S. to finish his studies. "I thought he could do a lot as a student/teacher," said Mr. Hoover. He persuaded Bob Schuster, an attorney friend of his from Wyoming who had gone to Yale, to help out. As the Times reported, "Schuster called the provost's office to ask how an ex-Taliban envoy with a fourth-grade education and a high-school equivalency degree might go about applying to one of the world's top universities."
Intrigued by Mr. Rahmatullah, Dean Shaw arranged for his admission into a nondegree program for special students. He apparently has done well, so far pulling down a 3.33 grade-point average.
There is something to be said for the instinct to reach out to one's former enemies. America's postwar reconciliation with the Japanese and Germans has paid great dividends. But there are limits.
During a trip to Germany I once ran into a relative of Hans Fritsche, the top deputy to Josef Goebbels, whom the Guardian, a British newspaper, once described as "the Nazi Propaganda Minister's leading radio spokesman [whose] commentaries were among the main items of German home and foreign broadcasting." After the war he was tried as a war criminal at Nuremberg, but because he had only given hate-filled speeches, he was acquitted of all charges in 1946. In the early 1950s, he applied for a visa to visit the U.S. and explain his regret at having served an evil regime. He was turned down, to the everlasting regret of the relative with whom I spoke. She noted that Albert Speer, Hitler's former architect, was also turned down for a U.S. visa even after he had completed a 20-year prison sentence and had written a best-selling book detailing Hitler's madness.
I don't believe Mr. Rahmatullah had direct knowledge of the 9/11 plot, and I don't think he has ever killed anyone. I can appreciate that he is trying to rebuild his life. But he willingly and cheerfully served an evil regime in a manner that would have made Goebbels proud. That he was 22 at the time is little an excuse. There are many poor, bright students — American and foreign alike — who would jump at the opportunity to attend Yale. Why should Mr. Rahmatullah go to the line ahead of all of them? That's a question Yale alumni should ask when their alma mater comes looking for contributions.
President Bush, who already has a well-known disdain for Yale elitism from his student days there, may also have some questions. In the wake of his being blindsided by his own administration over the Dubai port deal, he should be interested in finding out exactly who at the State Department approved Mr. Rahmatullah's application for a student visa.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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©2001, John H. Fund