Jewish World Review March 6, 2006 / 6 Adar 5766
John H. Fund
Taliban Man at Yale: University officials are embarrassed — but not embarrassed enough
Are there no limits to how arrogant and out-of-touch America's Ivy League schools can get? Last week it emerged that Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, former deputy foreign secretary of the Taliban, is now a student at Yale while at the same time the school continues to block ROTC training from its campus and argues for the right of its law school to exclude military recruiters. King George's troops played the music to "The World Turned Upside Down" as they surrendered at Yorktown. Perhaps the Ivy League should adopt that tune as they surrender all vestiges of common sense.
Yale's decision to admit Mr. Rahmatullah is particularly jarring given constant reminders of the Taliban's crimes — both past and present. Last week, as President Bush visited democratic Afghanistan, its TV news aired fresh footage of beheaded bodies being paraded through a street. The men had been murdered because they opposed local Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.
Last week I described Mr. Rahmatullah's remarkable visit to The Wall Street Journal's offices in the spring of 2001. .After a meeting in which he defended the Taliban's treatment of women and said he hadn't seen any evidence that their "guest" Osama bin Laden was a terrorist, I felt I had looked into the face of evil.
I walked Mr. Rahmatullah out. I will never forget how he stopped at a picture window and stared up at the World Trade Center, which terrorists had failed to destroy in 1993. When I finally pried him away, I couldn't help but think, He must have been thinking about the one that got away.
You would think Yale would feel compelled to explain its decision to admit Mr. Rahmatullah. Instead, a cone of silence has descended over the university. Yale officials didn't return my calls or those of other reporters for several days last week. Finally on Friday, spokesman Tom Conroy said the university would have no comment, citing privacy concerns that preclude it from discussing any individual student.
Almost no one will now defend Mr. Ramatullah's presence as a special student, even though a week ago many had no such inhibitions in a splashy New York Times magazine piece, which broke the news that he had been at Yale for eight months. In that piece, Richard Shaw, Yale's dean of undergraduate admissions before he took the same post at Stanford, explained that Yale had missed out on another foreign student of the same caliber as Mr. Rahmatullah but that "we lost him to Harvard," and "I didn't want that to happen again."
Now Mr. Shaw isn't returning phone calls, and much of the reaction from Yale to the outside world is downright hostile. One faculty member told me he wasn't interested in questions about Mr. Rahmatullah and accused me of pursuing "another Journal attack on Yale's lax liberal standards." He then threatened to attack me in print as "slimy."
At the same time, many Yale alumni and students tell me they are concerned that Yale refuses to explain why it honored Mr. Rahmatullah with a prize perch when countless well-qualified Americans — not to mention other Afghans — would jump at the chance but will never get it.
To understand what prompted Yale to invite Mr. Rahmatullah to its campus, I interviewed several Yale students and faculty members. Here are their explanations along with my analysis.
The Taliban were a dictatorial regime, but not dramatically different from many others. Their coming to power was originally welcomed by many people tired of civil war.
It's certainly true that in 1996 the country more or less fell into the lap of the Taliban, a group of young fanatics straight out of "Lord of the Flies." After the Soviet departure from Afghanistan in 1989, the country had become an anarchic stew of feuding warlords. The Taliban consolidated power into a central government and soon had control of 90% of the country.
But as soon as they were secure in power, they revealed they were medieval fascists. Homosexuals were thrown into ditches and then had concrete walls bulldozed over them. Women caught wearing nail polish had their fingernails pulled out or in some cases their fingers chopped off. Everything was banned from television to kite flying to paper bags. Paper bags? Apparently one of the mullahs heard that bags in Kabul's market had been made out of recycled copies of the Koran, so they had to go.
Mr. Rahmatullah became an apologist for all of this during his propaganda tour of the U.S. in the months before 9/11. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" captured one testy exchange he had with an exiled Afghan woman who told him, "You have imprisoned the women. It's a horror, let me tell you." The Afghan diplomat responded with a sneer: "I'm really sorry for your husband. He must have a very difficult time with you." Asked by the Times of London last week if he regretted that statement now, he replied: "That woman, for your information, did divorce her husband." He told the New York Times that if he had it to do over again he would have been "a little bit" softer in his 2001 speeches.
Mr. Rahmatullah now sincerely regrets serving as a high Taliban official and has rejected their hatred of the West.
He does say that some of his views have changed. "I was very young then," Mr. Rahmatullah, now 27, told the Yale Daily News last week. "At that age, you don't really have the same sensibilities that you may have later." He has told fellow students he now believes in free speech and the right of women to vote. He told the New York Times the Taliban were bad for his country because "the radicals were taking over and doing crazy stuff," implying that the early days of Taliban rule were benign. He says he believes that after graduation, he can serve as a bridge between the Muslim world and the West.
If that's true, it's time that Yale and the State Department, which issued his student visa, realize that there's evidence his views are still pretty unreconstructed and, in fact, would be rejected by most of the world's Muslims. Mr. Rahmatullah isn't giving interviews now, but last Wednesday he did talk with Tim Reid of the Times of London. He acknowledged he had done poorly in his class "Terrorism: Past, Present and Future," something he attributed to his disgust with the textbooks. "They would say the Taliban were the same as al Qaeda," he told the Times.
He shifted blame for many of the Taliban's brutal practices onto its Ministry of Vice and Virtue, even though he had defended their actions in 2001. As for the infamous filmed executions of women in Kabul's soccer stadium? "That was all Vice and Virtue stuff. There were also executions happening in Texas."
One shouldn't depend on one interview for a full picture of someone's current views. But late last year, Mr. Rahmatullah wrote an essay titled "Ignorance! Not an Option," which appeared on the Web site of the International Education Foundation, the charity headed by CBS contract cameraman-producer Mike Hoover that is sponsoring Mr. Rahmatullah's stay in the U.S. In the essay, Mr. Rahmatullah takes Americans to task for both their "xenophobic" attitudes and ignorance of the Taliban. He claims the Taliban "were too ignorant to know that their guest" — Osama bin Laden — "was harming other people." He concludes that the Taliban "honestly practiced what they had learned in their religious schools. They did what they had been taught to do. Whether what they had been taught was good or bad is another subject." If this is sincere repentance, Yale needs to acknowledge that at the school that fathered literary deconstructionism, the term has lost its meaning.
Mr. Hoover, a swashbuckling filmmaker who has worked for CBS off and on for two decades and who befriended Mr. Rahmatullah during three visits to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, also holds curious views about his former hosts. He wouldn't return my calls, but when Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity asked him Friday if the Taliban was a "brutal" regime, Mr. Hoover would say only that "parts of them were. It wasn't as monolithic as we'd like to make it out to be."
Mr. Hannity quoted from Mr. Ramatullah's article on the International Education Foundation's Web site in which Mr. Ramatullah called Israel a "franchise state" serving "as an American al Qaeda against the Arab World." Mr. Hoover said, "I had never heard that before." In fact, not only did the article appear on a Web site Mr. Hoover operates, but after the al Qaeda quote appeared in the Yale Daily News on Wednesday, the article mysteriously vanished — two days before Mr. Hoover claimed to be unaware of it.
Yale needs to be an international school, tolerant of the views of other cultures and willing to understand them.
Having lived overseas as a child and traveled to many developing countries, I am all for students knowing more about the world. But the arguments for accepting Mr. Rahmatullah are surreal. "If we didn't accept him and try to learn from him, how could we say we're this diverse body and institution of higher learning?" freshman Benjamin Gonzalez asked the New York Sun. "If we just dismiss him, what does that say about us?" It may say that moral relativism has such an entrenched hold on campus that some people can no longer make needed distinctions.
Some, though, are more discerning. James Kirchick, a senior who describes himself as a liberal Democrat, is appalled that campus feminists and gays trash American society as intolerant but won't protest now that "an actual, live remnant of one of the most misogynistic and homophobic regimes ever" is in their midst. "They have other concerns, such as single-sex bathrooms and fraternities," he told me.
There was a time when some at Yale summoned outrage at the Taliban. In 2000, a band of 30 protesters gathered outside Pierson College when it hosted a "master's tea" for Taliban representative Abdul Hakeem Mujahid. While the protesters chanted outside, Mr. Mujahid calmly told his audience that "99% of [Afghan] women approve" of the Taliban and that the regime was committed to elevating the status of women in society. Eli Muller, the reporter who covered the event for the Yale Daily News, was shocked that his lies "went nearly unchallenged."
After the talk, Mr. Muller observed someone approach a spokeswoman for the Taliban and invite her to give a talk at the law school on women's rights. Mr. Muller concluded in an op-ed piece entitled "Sympathy for the Devil" that the "moral overconfidence of Yale students makes them subject to manipulation by people who are genuinely evil." That year, Lynn Amowitz, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, found that 18% of the 223 women she interviewed who lived under Taliban rule had attempted suicide by drowning in local rivers, drinking pesticides or overdosing on children's medicines.
Six years later, even after 9/11, the Yale community represents the world turned upside down. Beth Nisson, a senior, writes that Mr. Rahmatullah's admission to Yale "should serve as a model for American higher education." Della Sentilles, the co-author of a feminist blog at Yale, insists one can't be judgmental about the Taliban. "As a white American feminist, I do not feel comfortable making statements or judgments about other cultures, especially statements that suggest one culture is more sexist and repressive than another," she writes. "American feminism is often linked to and manipulated by the state in order to further its own imperialist ends."
Ziba Ayeen, a Afghan-American who fled her native land with her family in the 1980s, isn't amused by such thinking. "The irony of Yale educating an official in a regime that barred women from going to school is too much," she told me.
When I asked several people at Yale if the reaction to Mr. Rahmatullah would be different if he were, say, a former official of the apartheid regime of South Africa, the reaction was universal: Of course he would be barred. When I asked why, I was told I had no idea how liberal a place Yale was. "But what is liberal about the Taliban, then or now?" I innocently asked. Eric White, a senior, told me that many students believe that regimes run by whites, such as apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany, come out of Western traditions and are judged differently than non-Western regimes. "There's a real feeling that we don't have the right or understanding to be able to hold those regimes to the same standards."
When I asked Prof. Vivek Sharma, who briefly had Mr. Rahmatullah in one of his seminars, about this double standard, he explained, "There's a belief among many at Yale that we really have to specifically understand the Middle East because of the American occupation there and that we must understand our enemies as deeply as we can."
But if Mr. Rahmatullah's admission was motivated by a desire to understand the enemy, why was Yale mum about Mr. Ramatullah's background for eight months, until he himself chose to reveal it to the New York Times? Nat Hentoff, a columnist for the Village Voice and a First Amendment champion, says Mr. Rahmatullah's admission might have value as a "laboratory experiment" to see how far "tolerance of anti-tolerance" might go. "But the whole thing looks fishy given Yale's reluctance to tell people about their educational prize," he told me. "Thus it looks to be more about the lasting effects of political correctness than a desire to hear other points of view."
Somebody else is responsible for Mr. Rahmatullah's admission as a Yale student.
No one is more surprised than Mr. Rahmatullah at his good fortune. "I'm the luckiest person in the world," he told the New York Times. "I could have ended up in Guantanamo Bay. Instead I ended up at Yale." What explains his luck?
The buck-passing has been brisk the past week. Yale has privately told some people that since the State Department approved his student visa, there must not be a problem with the former Taliban official. State Department spokesman Adam Erelli says that "given what he was doing and why he wanted to come to the United States, [there were no] grounds for ineligibility" for a visa. Another State Department official told me off the record that because Mr. Rahmatullah had been accepted by so prestigious an institution as Yale the probable assumption made by lower-level officials was that he was OK.
P.J. Crowley, a former official in the Clinton National Security Council, speculated that perhaps Mr. Ramatullah had been an intelligence asset for the U.S. and his admission was a reward for that help. But my calls to several sources turned up no hint of that. Laili Helms, a former spokeswoman for the Taliban who lives in New Jersey, claims that Mr. Rahmatullah met with officials at the CIA and the State Department during his 2001 tour and proposed the Taliban hold Osama bin Laden in a fixed location long enough so the U.S. could find and kill him. My sources at both agencies say there is no evidence such a proposal was ever made.
So the mystery deepens. Even Mr. Hoover, who frequently visited the Taliban in an effort to secure an interview with Osama bin Laden, is vague about the details of why his charity is paying for his friend to come to the U.S. Indeed, it sounds as if he is shifting responsibility. When asked why Mr. Ramatullah is here, he told Fox News: "Those are questions for all of the people all down the chain of command that have backed him coming to the country, starting with the American generals who OK'd it for him to come, the people in Islamabad that gave him the visa and the people at Yale who decided to put him on into the campus."
As for who finances his foundation, Mr. Hoover said it was a group of friends who after finding out "about his background, and heard his ideas, they were behind helping fund him to go to Yale."
Kurt Lohbeck, who worked with Mr. Hoover as a contract reporter/producer for CBS News in Afghanistan is skeptical about the whole matter. "I worked in the region for 10 years, and there are a lot of people there who should go to Yale before Rahmatullah," he told me. As for Mr. Hoover's curious ambivalence today about the Taliban, Mr. Lohbeck said Mr. Hoover would not have been able to go back so frequently as a guest of the Taliban "unless he had kowtowed to them on the first visit. They would have had to grease the skids for him."
For all his faults, Mr. Rahmatullah is a positive influence on campus.
How good a role model could Mr. Rahmatullah be? He got into Yale with a fourth-grade education and a high-school equivalency degree. Next month, he will apply to become a full-time student working towards a degree in political science. To his credit, Harold Hongju Koh, dean of Yale Law School and a former Clinton administration human-rights official, says that before Mr. Rahmatullah is accepted, "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." Mr. Koh engaged in a somewhat heated debate with Mr. Rahmatullah at Yale during his 2001 U.S. tour and only "reluctantly" shook his hand afterwards.
Mr. Ramatullah has retained his habit of heated argument. Last year, he attended Prof. Sharma's seminar on war in Europe during the Middle Ages. "He was antagonistic toward other students and he tended to take over the class discussion," one student recalled. "He would talk all the time about life in the mountains of Afghanistan." During the last class Mr. Rahmatullah attended, Mr. Sharma says, "he interrupted me constantly." When I asked the professor to confirm student reports that he had asked Mr. Rahmatullah to leave his class, he replied "That's not quite true. I forcefully made it clear what I thought of him wanting to draw attention to himself." Mr. Rahmatullah never returned to his class, taking advantage of an opt-out provision.
Others say Mr. Rahmatullah has been better behaved, albeit sometimes brusque. Amy Aaland, the executive director of the Jewish center where Mr. Rahmatullah frequently eats dinner, has no problems with him. She told the Yale Daily news that she sees his story "as representative of Yale's rich student diversity."
But rather than defend their prize diversity catch, the university and the other enablers of Mr. Rahatullah's presence there are clamming up and hoping the furor goes away. "Yale has weathered storms like this before with complete silence," one former Yale administrator told me. "It's cold game theory on their part. They've already alienated conservative alumni; they're not giving much anymore. If they can keep broader donor anger at bay, they feel they don't have much to lose."
Well, perhaps Yale does. In a column lamenting how Larry Summers was deposed as president of Harvard, the New York Times' John Tierney, a Yale graduate, reports on all the reasons American higher education refuses to change. He quotes Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union, as saying "the Achilles' heel of academics is their status anxiety. The only way to attack them is with mockery."
It's been more than half a century since William F. Buckley mocked the wooly-headed thinking he found at his alma mater in "G-d and Man at Yale." Now we have Mr. Taliban Man at Yale. If that doesn't cry out for mockery, nothing does.
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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