Ex-Taliban gets media attention

Rahmatullah Hashemi ’09 will no longer be able to walk through Yale’s courtyards and dining halls unrecognized.

Hashemi, who became a non-degree special student at Yale last July, is a former diplomat for the foreign minister of the Taliban. As revealed in the cover story of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, University officials will allow Hashemi to apply for regular-degree status by this summer, contingent upon his academic performance.

Though several professors and reporter Chip Brown, who wrote the Times piece, said they think Hashemi has a compelling life story and a valuable perspective to add to the Yale community, some students and administrators said they are concerned about Hashemi’s past association with an extremist organization.

Hashemi fled Afghanistan — where he was born — in 1982 and lived in Pakistan until he first became aware of the Taliban at age 16. Hashemi, who now has two children and a wife living in Pakistan, is known by many nationally for his 30-second appearance in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” in which he tells a woman who aggressively questions the Taliban’s stance toward women’s rights, “I’m really sorry to your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you.”

Hashemi, 27, said he may have not communicated his thoughts in the proper way in 2001 and in earlier years when he conducted speaking tours in the United States on behalf of the Taliban.

“I was very young then,” he said. “At that age, you don’t really have the same sensibilities that you may have later. You’re not as sharp in what you say. So sometimes you might regret things. … [But] the movie was more personal. That woman was too radical. She was shouting and screaming. I just thought, ‘Wow. How is she living with her husband?'”

Brown said Hashemi’s life choices indicate an important shift to scholarship from acting as a mouthpiece for a controversial organization.

“To what degree did he believe what he was saying [in 2001]? That’s a good question,” Brown said. “He came from a culture where you don’t challenge what’s in the book, a country of received wisdom. That’s what’s interesting about him: how he makes an entry into this world and what he retains from his own background.”

Brown said he is concerned about postings Sunday on feminist blogs criticizing his portrait of Hashemi, who Brown said has been unfairly characterized as a misogynist. Many details of Hashemi’s life that would have highlighted Afghani cultural nuances were cut from the Times article, Brown said, including the fact that Hashemi’s mother selected his bride.

While Hashemi, who is studying political science, said he believes in democracy as a mechanism for precipitating change, he also said he supports free speech and women’s rights, two values not commonly associated in the United States with the Taliban.

“Inherently, humans are inclined [to] free speech,” Hashemi said. “I really support it, and that’s one thing I support in this country. I did and do believe in women’s rights. Yes, women should be able to vote.”

Though he was reluctant to share his opinions on U.S. foreign policy, Hashemi said he thinks many Americans have misconceptions about Afghanistan. He said many do not understand the subtle difference between the Taliban with which he was associated and the “neo-Taliban” of today.

“There are all kinds of people in the Taliban,” he said. “There were certain elements of the Taliban which were radical and gave the Taliban the bad name it has today. But other people in the Taliban wanted to unify the country and disarm the people. I was affiliated with the foreign minister, who didn’t hold those radical beliefs.”

But Harold Hongju Koh, dean of Yale Law School, said he believed a greater investigation into the specifics of Hashemi’s background will be necessary before the University allows him to enroll for a full degree.

“I read the story today with interest,” Koh said. “It was a compelling account, and I was touched by it. But I was left with many questions. 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, which are, of course, notorious for their human rights-abusing practices.”

Koh and Hashemi participated in a debate at Yale in March 2001 titled “The Taliban: Pros and Cons.” The Times story depicted the debate as somewhat heated, with Koh “reluctantly” shaking Hashemi’s hand at the debate’s conclusion.

Now at a liberal college campus, Hashemi said he has not come across much that has offended him. While aware of the Sex Week at Yale events held earlier this month, Hashemi said nothing about the events “shocked” him, though he did not attend any of them. He said he would love to take a class in women’s and gender studies.

Hashemi also said he hopes the Times article does not change the perception of him among his friends and the greater Yale community.

“I hope the article doesn’t change anything,” he said. “I’m a student here. I’m just a freshman. I don’t want to change any of that. I really wouldn’t like that if it happens. It wasn’t really something I talked about before.”

First and foremost, Hashemi said, he is at Yale to educate himself. He said he has considered writing a book as a long-term goal, though he wants to be an educator in his home country more immediately.

“I think education is important, and I am lucky to be at Yale,” he said. “I realize education is crucial for thinking about change. I plan on going back to Afghanistan. I’m studying political science, but I don’t think only politicians can bring about change.”

Several Yale faculty and administrators said that they were happy to have Hashemi as part of the Yale community, arguing that he adds an important perspective.

Lecturer and diplomat-in-residence Charles Hill said the spotlight on Hashemi indicates Yale’s role in connecting the two cultures.

“This is a good article, and positive for Yale,” Hill said. “It shows us to be out in front in identifying and encouraging those with the potential to make the Middle East a better place and a responsible region within the international community.”

Douglas Woodwell, who taught “Terrorism: Past, Present and Future,” in which Hashemi was enrolled last fall, said he found Hashemi’s story to be quite compelling.

“I’m sure this is not easy for him,” Woodwell said. “He’s a hard worker and an intelligent guy, and he seems to have the right outlook.”

Woodwell said he was not aware of Hashemi’s involvement with the Taliban until he read the Times piece yesterday.

Amy Aaland, executive director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, where Hashemi often eats dinner, said she found Hashemi’s story to be representative of Yale’s rich student diversity.

Altaf Saadi ’08, the political chair of the Muslim Students’ Association and a friend of Hashemi’s, said that although Hashemi is being put in the spotlight, there should be respect for his current status as a Yale student.

“I am more comfortable leaving Rahmat alone to study and be a regular student,” he said.

But Jay Schweikert ’08, a political science major, said that while people can always change, Hashemi’s past position with the Taliban is unsettling.

“I think it is definitely troubling,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. But it’s good to acknowledge that people can change. To say that you can’t change is to disparage people. We have to accept that people can change if we want to forge ahead with the change we want in the Middle East.”

Still, Brown said he was not uncomfortable interviewing an individual whom many Americans associate with an organization that has allegedly harbored terrorists.

“I think Americans are incredibly ignorant,” Brown said. “I wasn’t uncomfortable interviewing anybody as long as they aren’t trying to physically harm me. I have talked to people who have done horrible things in their lives, murderers and killers. This person was a diplomat and spokesman.”

Hashemi said he will apply for a full degree before May and will spend this summer with his family in Pakistan.

Sayed Hashemi, seen here in his apartment, is a former Taliban diplomat. His life was discussed in Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.
Caio Camargo
Sayed Hashemi, seen here in his apartment, is a former Taliban diplomat. His life was discussed in Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.

Comments