Ex-Taliban’s admission concerns complex range of political issues

To the Editor:

As an alumnus I want to voice my support for Yale’s brave and thoughtful decision to accept Rahmatullah Hashemi as a special student and to consider him for admission as a regular college student. I understand the administration has been criticized for this on the grounds that Hashemi should be expelled for his connections to the Taliban.

I have nothing but contempt for the Taliban. But I am also acquainted with the terrible, wrenching history of the country and how it compromised many people. I worked in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004, setting up a microfinance institution to give loans to entrepreneurs. Each of my colleagues had a story of injustice or suffering under the Taliban, and some still suffer from its legacy. My star female credit officer had been forced to marry a Taliban in the 1990s. To this day, her husband harasses her for working for a Western organization. Fortunately, as a hashish addict and jobless coward he lacks the courage to carry through on his threats against his far smarter and stronger wife. A friend of mine was among the five Doctors Without Borders staff assassinated in Western Afghanistan while I was there, and the Taliban claimed responsibility (although we will never be sure who was behind it; local political machinations are also possible).

But Afghanistan’s is a messy history, and the many dark, bloody stains on its past will never be made right nor its future secured by lashing out at the one young man with the courage to escape his past, to expose himself to criticism, to put himself in Western shoes, and to try and help each side understand the other. If we prosecute the one ex-Taliban within reach, how many other former members of nasty regimes who fled to the U.S. should also be hunted down? The debate over Hashemi’s presence at Yale has had the healthy effect of highlighting the many horrors the Taliban committed, although it seems many critics are not aware of how the United States let the country become dependent on the Soviet Union in the 1950s, how we pumped a staggering amount of weaponry into the country during the 1980s, and how those weapons have fueled conflict, instability and misery ever since.

Some critiques seem to lump Afghanistan in with the Arab Middle East, suggesting that weak geography, a latent fear of Islam and a bias against Arabs may be behind their unease. Others seem more an exercise in adolescent vitriol than a reasoned debate on a complicated subject. A column by James Kirchick (“Ex-Taliban can learn from Yale experience,” 3/1) is so packed with exaggeration, self-righteous indignation and misrepresentation that it’s hard to know where to start to pull it apart — although reading the New York Times Magazine article that started the furor is enough to put most of his charges to rest. Hashemi should be held accountable for the statements he made while working for the Taliban, but he should be allowed to redeem himself — something he seems to be doing amazingly quickly given the wrenching cultural dislocation of moving from Afghanistan to the United States. His comment in “Fahrenheit 9/11″ was deeply disturbing, but I doubt most twentysomethings would want to be called to account for every off-color or narrow-minded slight they indulged in, especially if backed against the wall as he was and trying to balance his message with his responsibilities to a regime with control over his family back home.

The broader cultural benefits of having Afghan students at Yale are tremendous, but Hashemi’s application should be considered on his academic merits, not as the test-case in a larger, cultural conflict. It is the least we can do for him and for his classmates.

Jonathan Griswold ’99

March 14, 2006