Sympathy for the devil

James Kirchick’s excellent column last week (“Singing the praises of dictators,” 1/30) described how a group of American public health students returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia returned with a startlingly rosy portrait of a fundamentalist, despotic regime.

One wonders how bright, educated American students could be so grievously conned. It’s not as if information on the status of women in Saudi society is hard to come by in the American media. The contributions of the Saudi regime to the spread of the most intolerant and fanatical strains of Islam are likewise well known.

I believe that I have some advantage relative to Kirchick in understanding how this feat of public relations was accomplished: a few years ago, I was able to glimpse an even more effective one in action. As a freshman reporter for the Yale Daily News, I had the opportunity to see in action how vicious fanatics can market themselves to a relatively well-informed liberal audience and emerge with the audience’s sympathy.

I do not think that these students value liberty less than they should, or are unconcerned for the plight of women or homosexuals under repressive regimes. Rather, I suspect that their mistake lay in underestimating those who do not share their liberal values.

Some causes can attract no sympathy in historical hindsight: once we have seen their consequences, we cannot allow ourselves to consider how one might have found them tolerable in their heyday. It may then come as a surprise to many readers to know that a mere three years ago the Taliban ambassador came to Pierson College for a Master’s Tea.

I remember the visit because I covered it for this newspaper, and because it was one of the most shocking experiences of my time at Yale.

The event was mobbed; there were 30 or so demonstrators outside who couldn’t even get into the talk. The actual audience was primarily made up of students concerned about the Taliban’s oppressive treatment of women. But Abdul Hakeem Mujahid came well-prepared for such questions.

Mujahid was able to articulate a rather powerful argument that their restrictions on women were aimed at preventing the wanton rape that had characterized previous Afghan regimes. The latter statement — about the extent of sexual violence under previous regimes, which happened to be true — was an utter surprise to the audience.

The Taliban were actually committed to elevating the status of women in society, he explained, but could not do so too rapidly without alienating their conservative rural supporters.

Mujahid said that earlier reform efforts backfired because the government tried to impose cultural norms that the majority of the populace was not willing to accept. Such reforms, he said, “created a gap between the masses and the rulers. Can you imagine such an insult to the masses?” His historical claim in this instance as well had much empirical validity.

Mujahid was aided immeasurably by the presence of Laili Helms, who described herself as “a former international aid worker and Afghan-American activist.” With her native command of English and her claims to activism, Helms was living proof that a liberated American woman could vouch for the Taliban.

Helms insisted that the Taliban had improved the lot of the people in Afghanistan. “On my previous trips I saw people killed in front of my eyes. They’ve brought stability, peace, security to the people in the country,” she said.

She neglected to mention that she had been a Taliban spokesperson to the American press for several years.

Helms was irresistible to a Yale audience. At the end of the talk, I heard a member of the audience approach Helms and invite her to address a group at the Law School on the subject of women’s rights.

The audience members came in thinking that they were intellectually superior to the speaker, that they were the only ones who knew or cared about women’s rights. When the speaker was able to show knowledge of the issue that exceeded their own, and express some shared concerns, they were stripped of their moral ammunition.

Since no one had expected intelligent arguments from the guest, his subsequent series of lies — declaring that no women were being persecuted under the Taliban — went nearly unchallenged. No one rose to say that regardless of the Taliban’s concern for preventing rape, the solution might not be confining women to their homes and stripping them of everything from education to basic medical care.

There are two lessons that can be extracted from the success of the Taliban visit to Yale. Firstly, ideologies that are brutal and retrograde can still market themselves cleverly and effectively. People who share no aspect of liberal values can be perfectly adept at paying lip service to those values in order to mask their crimes. Repressive regimes have an uncanny ability to present themselves as benefactors of those they victimize.

The more troubling lesson, I believe, is that the moral overconfidence of Yale students makes them subject to manipulation by people who are genuinely evil. The students in the audience that day in Pierson came in expecting an ignorant, ranting bigot.

But once the audience saw that the Taliban representatives had an articulate defense of their position and shared some humanitarian concerns, they seemed to conclude that the Taliban couldn’t really be that bad.

The risk of assuming that vicious fanatics are fundamentally unlike us is that the discovery of some some shared experience or concern is apt to make us forget both their viciousness and their fanaticism.

The key is to recognize that people like the Taliban are concerned with many of the same issues that we are and have just as much courage, integrity and intelligence as any of us. We must remember that they have reasons for what they do. Every fanatical ideology has some aspect that we would find convincing.

Yet we must also understand that this does not make the Taliban any less evil. We must understand that the most vile acts are perpetrated and supported by people not unlike ourselves, or fail to recognize evil in its most insidious guises. Yet we must also remember that to understand is not to forgive.



Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.

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