In August 2005, at the start of Yale’s fall semester classes, Rahmatullah Hashemi took his seat among 150 other students in Luce Hall room 101. It was around 1 p.m. on the first day of Politi-cal Science 145, “Terrorism: Past, Present and Future,” taught by professor Douglass Woodwell.
Though only a freshman that August, Hashemi had been in this room before — four years prior, in March 2001. That first time, he sat at the front of the stage, his head wrapped in a turban, as one of two participants in a debate on “The Taliban: Pros and Cons.” Hashemi, one of the Taliban’s top diplomatic representatives at the time of the debate, argued the pro side.
And now he was back — four years older, no longer associated with the Taliban, no longer wearing a turban, in a full lecture hall to learn about global terrorism. According to Woodwell, Hashemi introduced himself as having “lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban” and was among his most talkative and engaged students, always sitting front and center. He said Hashemi was always willing to help clarify the tenets of Islam and the Koran whenever the subject came up in class.
“There was all this religious terminology and one day [Hashemi] gave me a warm smile and said, ‘It’s OK, we get it confused too,’” Woodwell said.
Other instructors also noticed Hashemi’s unique thirst for learning, particularly notable in a man whose formal schooling ended in the fourth grade. Here, he sat in class alongside Jews, Christians, African Americans, women. Here, he could somehow slip thousands of miles between himself and a complicated past — until he couldn’t.
Hashemi’s journey to Yale hardly resembled the normal trajectory followed by most of his class-mates. Years before his arrival to the United States in the summer of 2005, Hashemi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, had been assigned by Afghanistan’s foreign minister to act as a translator for American filmmaker Mike Hoover. Hoover, while on one of many reporting trips to Afghanistan, befriended Hashemi during their time in the field together and later introduced him to Bob Schuster ’67 of Jackson Hole, Wyo. Schuster would ultimately help finance Hashemi’s time at Yale, and even set up an educational charity to finance his tuition costs.
Ronald Neumann, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan during Hashemi’s time at Yale, said Hashemi would not have encountered any major difficulty obtaining a visa despite his ties to the Taliban. (Neumann did not personally deal with the controversy surrounding Hashemi’s status as a student while in office.)
“If he hadn’t been in any fighting capacity, he wouldn’t necessarily have shown up on any black-list and [his application] would not have been disqualified,” Neumann said.
Neumann added that many Afghans in the late 1990s and early 2000s had ties to the Taliban.
In February 2006 during his first spring semester, Hashemi’s face appeared on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The headline ran in bold: “He was the Taliban’s spin doctor. So what’s he doing at Yale?” In 12,000 words, the story Hashemi had kept almost entirely private — of his high rank in the Taliban as an English-language translator, of his wife and two children — had been chronicled in one of the most widely circulated publications in the world.
The article’s first section was titled, “The Talib in Luce Hall.”
Originally, Hashemi had been appointed by the Afghan foreign ministry to act as a bridge between the Islamic world and the West. Following the article’s publication, Hashemi was given a crash course in the power of Western media.
CNN cameras chased him through the campus. Fox News’ Sean Hannity ran multiple interviews characterizing Hashemi as a terrorist walking the New Haven streets. Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund ran a series of opinion pieces chastising Yale administrators for “abdicating their moral responsibility and admitting Mr. Hashemi.” All called for Hashemi’s immediate expulsion, if not deportation. But the most vehement campaign for Hashemi’s removal came from a group much closer to Yale itself: the alumni.
Led by Clint Taylor ’96, a vehement campaign dubbed “NailYale,” alternatively known as, “Give Yale the Finger,” encouraged alumni to substitute their regular donations to Yale with fake finger-nail clippings that would be mailed to then-President Richard Levin’s office. According to one of Taylor’s blog posts for the conservative-leaning website Townhall.com, the name refers to the “Taliban’s policy of pulling out the fingernails of Afghani women who dared to wear fingernail polish.”
“Most importantly, send your money somewhere else,” Taylor’s post read. “While Yale made a choice to embrace an unapologetic supporter of a regime which oppressed women and sheltered Osama bin Laden, we prefer to aid organizations that support the troops who defeated that barbarous regime.”
Though those posts were written over eight years ago, Taylor still stands by his views. Contacted recently via email, Taylor said that he had no regrets regarding the NailYale campaign, as he believes that the Taliban has yet to change its ways.
“Has the Taliban reformed?” Taylor said. “Has it laid down its arms and embraced human rights? Rebuilt the Bamiyan Buddhas? Has it stopped murdering journalists? Has Hashemi’s old boss Mul-lah Omar undergone some mystical, Dickensian conversion? I’m pretty sure the Taliban hasn’t for-gotten what they’re all about. Neither have I.”
With news crews waiting for him outside of class and his phone ringing incessantly, Hashemi withdrew to his off-campus apartment to ride out the storm. Charles Hill, a professor of International Studies who became close with Hashemi during his time at Yale, said that as the days passed with little relief, Jewish students would deliver plates of hot food from the Slifka Center to Hashemi, who could not walk through campus due to the heavy media presence.
“It really moved him because in [Hashemi’s] upbringing, he was taught that Jews are out to kill you and that if you are in the Taliban you’ve got to kill the Jews first,” said Hill. “This society was entirely unlike the one he had been taught [America] would be like.”
Meanwhile, the person who opened up the controversy — Chip Brown, the author of the Times Magazine story — felt only regret.
Brown, who came to know Hashemi through Hoover and his friends in Jackson Hole, said his origi-nal objective when writing the piece was to shed light on Hashemi’s “very American journey from war-time refugee … [to] new prospects of life as Yale’s most improbable 27-year-old freshman.” Brown added that he hoped the story would lend some insight into the burgeoning conflict in Af-ghanistan.
It seems Hashemi himself hoped the story would give readers a fuller understanding of his home country and the values of a liberal arts education.
“I can speculate that [Hashemi] thought sharing his life story and his experience would help Ameri-cans understand Afghanistan, and perhaps might inspire Afghans to follow his path and seek western educations,” Brown said. “I don’t think he had the faintest idea that his desire to get an education and to explain some of the dynamics of his troubled country and his own past involvement in the Taliban movement would provoke the hysteria it did.”
When Hashemi’s special student status expired at the end of the year, Hashemi applied to become a full-time Eli Whitney Scholar, a degree program offered by the college for nontraditional students. Professor Hill said Hashemi’s goal was to be admitted as Whitney Scholar so that he could prepare himself to go back to Afghanistan and found an education system. This way, the radical madrassas would not be the only schooling option for young Afghanis.
According to Master Jeffrey Brenzel, Hashemi was never asked to leave the school but was simply not accepted to the Whitney Program.
“[Hashemi] then decided on his own not to take further courses as a non-degree special stu-dent, which is something that he could have continued to do at the time,” Brenzel said.
Some reported rumors that the University changed the criteria for admission to the Whitney program so that Hashemi was no longer eligible, a decision that Hill noted would have been “a kind of ploy to get rid of someone.” Hill added that he wasn’t sure Hashemi would have returned anyway given the chaos and negative publicity he had received.
Brown said the university’s motto of Lux et Veritas hardly seemed to be its guiding principle in the midst of the controversy.
“I think of all the ignorant and craven responses to the former Taliban student at Yale, the Univer-sity’s reaction was the most disappointing,” Brown said. “As far as I know, the administration cow-ered in the face of controversy. No one in an official capacity spoke out in defense of the student they had accepted whose background was not a secret to the admissions office, nor, for that matter, to the U.S. consulate officials in Pakistan who granted him a visa.”
According to Brown, Hashemi did not return for his sophomore year because he could not obtain a visa to re-enter the U.S. after visiting his family in Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. Brown fur-ther described the circumstances as “a kind of soft deportation.” Hashemi’s name was also added to an International Stop List, which complicated his ability to enroll in other international universities. He eventually landed at the American University in Cairo where he double majored in political sci-ence and international law, graduating with honors. He is now believed to be working for the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Kabul.
Brown said he recently obtained a copy of a 12-chapter English language manuscript written by Hashemi on the history of the Taliban and his own beliefs regarding the value of education.
“It was education that had shaped my world view in the past, education that shapes it now, and education that will continuously shape my outlook in the future,” Hashemi wrote.