The Elite Ex-Taliban

Controversial Yale recruit appears to be causing less of a stir on campus than off.

March 31, 2006

Ever since word started to spread last month that an ex-Taliban member named Sayeed Rahmatullah Hashemi had for months been attending classes along with the thousands of other backpack-toting students at Yale University, a steady stream of criticism has been directed at the institution.

Administrators have thus far stood by their decision to let him enroll. And a majority of students and professors on the campus itself seem to back the admission of Hashemi to a non-degree granting program.

“The outsiders are largely right-wing commentators,” says Zachariah Victor, a member of Yale’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate. “They don't have reason, science or history on their side, so they try to degrade intellectuals and universities. Rational argument cannot support them, so they turn to ‘morality’ and religion. They have little expertise, so they deprecate expert opinion and appeal to populist sentiment. They cannot comprehend the breadth of our constitution, so they try to subject the rights of the few to the superstitions of the many.”

“Most attacks on Mr. Hashemi from outside of Yale are political in nature,” agrees Joshua Krug, a student leader with Yale’s Hillel group. “Conservatives want the country to believe that ultra-liberals control American universities.” 

One professor, who wanted to remain anonymous because he “didn’t want to face an onslaught of attacks from the right,” said Thursday that many people don’t realize that half the U.S. approved Afghan government, including President Hamid Karzai, are former members of the Taliban. “If that standard is good enough for the U.S. government, why should it be any different for Yale?” he asked.

Critics, like David Bookstaber, who graduated from Yale in 1999, say that one must look at Hashemi’s past to understand the complete picture. Throughout 2001 and for years before that, Hashemi had defended the actions of the Taliban and even had a heated debate with the Yale law professor (and now law dean) Harold Hongju Koh in March of that year.

“Many proponents of Hashemi at Yale have tried to paint this as a partisan issue, says Bookstaber, who has contributed to the “Nail Yale” blog, which is run by four Yale alumni “who are outraged by our alma mater’s decision to admit former Taliban official Sayeed Rahmatullah Hashemi as a special student.”

“I don't think there's any sort of consensus on this issue; reactions run the spectrum from, ‘Yale is so great for doing this,’ to, ‘This is an outrage,’" adds Bookstaber.

When Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was released in 2004, Hashemi appeared in the documentary, with many Americans associating him as the face of a larger enemy. But since 9/11, Hashemi has said that he is no longer a member of the Taliban. He also told the New York Times Magazine in February that he wanted to pursue an education to try to better support his family. After applying to Yale, he was admitted in 2005 and started classes there last summer. He’s also participated in a "Jews and Muslims" dialogue group.

Since the news first broke of Hashemi’s admission, many talk show hosts and columnists -- often of the conservative bent -- have blasted the institution for allowing him to attend the elite institution. Many have pointed out that he stopped going to school in elementary school and took a high school equivalency test, which he passed in 2003.

But administrators have stood firm behind their decision. “We hope that his courses help him understand the broader context for the conflicts around the world,” Yale officials said in a recent statement. “We acknowledge that some are criticizing Yale for allowing 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.”

Hashemi was issued U.S. visas in 2004 and 2005, according to the State Department, first on a tourist visa and then in 2005 on a student visa. “The mandatory procedures were followed, which, in his case, included vetting through an interagency security clearance process,” according to the administration’s statement. “He was cleared by all agencies.”

Bookstaber has asked whether the institution should have ever admitted a person with so little formal education and who had been affiliated with the Taliban in the first place.

In an unscientific online poll, conducted by The Yale Herald student newspaper, a majority of undergraduate students said they didn’t have a problem with Yale’s decision. A majority also said they would support Hashemi's continuing his education at Yale in a degree-granting program.

“I think the major question is, given the decision that was made by the admissions office that Hashemi is qualified to learn at Yale, is whether he poses a threat to the country,” says Krug. “Applying to Yale in the first place and while here, participating in Yale's 'Jews and Muslims' dialogue group, Hashemi seems to want to expand his mind. Hashemi, by learning here, has already changed his approach to the world.” 

 “[A]ll admissions decisions are confidential and there is no litmus test,” Helaine Klasky, a spokeswoman for the university, said Thursday.  She said that this is “an extraordinarily busy time for admissions” and officials in that office were thus not available for comment.

Hashemi could not be reached for comment for this article, but it is expected that he will complete his studies at Yale in May.


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