Question and Answer with New York Times Magazine author Chip Brown

Q: What was your original objective when writing the story? 

A: I had several objectives: the first was simply to write an account of a very bright young man’s remarkable and — oddly enough — very American journey from war-time refugee whose formal schooling ended in the fourth grade to his discovery of modern multicultural America and the new prospects of life as Yale’s most improbable 27-year-old freshman. I also hoped to introduce his informed and nuanced point of view as to the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan where the US has now been fighting a war for 12 years against an enemy we hardly understand, in a culture we seem unable to fathom, in a country I daresay most Americans couldn’t find on a map – a war that has cost us billions of dollars, the deaths of more than 2,000 American soldiers and countless thousands of Afghan lives, and has arguably compromised our ideals and our moral self-esteem. And a third objective: I suppose because I still believe in the virtues of a liberal education, I thought Rahmatullah’s story might illustrate the genius of “Lux et Veritas” as Yale puts it in the school motto — that is, it might remind us why it’s more important to be educated in a university than a madrassa, why it’s not enough to grow up reading only the Koran or the Bible without being exposed to biology, geology, art, literature and other disciplines that train students to think critically, empathetically and independently, virtues I’m sorry to say were not much in evidence among many of the Yale alumni and the rest of the banshee hordes who condemned the university for admitting Rahmatullah as a student, and who probably think that anybody who tries to make an argument like this is some softheaded liberal keen on burkas, beheadings and religious zealots.

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Q: How do you think your piece played into the controversy? 

A: Unfortunately, I don’t think my 12,000 word story played into the controversy, I think it created it. It’s a miserable accomplishment and ongoing source of regret. There wasn’t any controversy until Rahmatullah’s freshman status at Yale was publicized. If my story had never existed, I believe he would have been able to complete his education and would have graduated from Yale.

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Q: What did Rahmatullah wish to come across through the story? 

A: I am not sure he had a clear-cut objective or concrete expectations because I don’t think he’d ever been the focus of an article in a publication as visible as the New York Times Magazine. I can speculate that he thought sharing his life story and his experience would help Americans understand Afghanistan, and perhaps might inspire other Afghans to follow his path and seek western educations. 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. He had quit the Taliban well before he enrolled at Yale but he was excoriated for ever having been a member of it and for having the temerity to speak out in defense of the Taliban movement in his debate with Harold Koh at Luce Hall when he visited Yale in March 2001. It’s another of the twists in his amazing story that four years later, he was sitting in Luce Hall for a class on the history of terrorism.

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Q: What was your overall impression of the social climate here at Yale in the midst of the controversy? 

A: If by social climate you mean what sort of reception Rahmatullah received from students and professors at Yale after his background became widely known, I don’t really know. Some of the friends he’d made at Yale knew of his background, others didn’t. Certainly the admissions office was aware of his past, and I also believe some of the administrators who looked after foreign students knew where he’d come from. But he’d made some friends who didn’t know about his background, and as I recall — this was nine years ago now — he told me some of them were upset. There was a student from Texas he’d befriended who wouldn’t talk to him. Bu he was treated well when he was just another member of the freshman class in 2005. After the story came out, he was hounded by people outside of Yale, many in the media. His apartment was staked out and he was chased around New Haven by a TV crew from FOX News. In general, I think he was unprepared, overwhelmed and perhaps a little scared by the media response, and by the response of the Yale alumni who organized the “Nail Yale” campaign goaded by a series of snide and obtuse articles by a Wall Street Journal columnist. For a while I tried kept track of the various things written about Rahmatullah in newspapers and on websites — I think I had a list of over 200 citations at one point. I was amazed by the outpouring of self-righteous hostility and the general shortsightedness of people eager to bomb first and ask questions later. I wonder if that willfully ignorant quadrant of America is puzzled by the failures of American policy in Afghanistan, where the outcome seems to be so unlike what we thought we would achieve, and violence and corruption are as rampant as ever. Are Nail Yalies mystified by the April 14, 2014 cover story in Time Magazine entitled “Return of the Taliban.” Do they have any appreciation for the complexity of regional politics in which the Taliban (hardly a monolithic category) figure prominently and which we seem to be caught in the middle of?

Do the people who were baying for Rahmatullah’s scalp have any clue what they might have learned from him, and how America might have profited from his desire to educate himself and work to improve Afghanistan for his children and his people? Or are they content with their cheap victory of getting him out of the US while America wastes billions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting a war it hardly understands?

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Q: Were you surprised by the university’s reaction to Rahmatullah’s background? Did it seem narrow-minded to you? 

A: Narrow-minded is putting it mildly. I think of all the ignorant and craven responses to the former Taliban student at Yale, the University’s reaction was the most disappointing. I want to say this carefully because I don’t know what Yale owes its students, or whether it is naive of me to think that a University with Light and Truth on its letterhead ought to have the courage of its convictions. I don’t know what the Yale administrators did or didn’t do behind the scenes. I don’t know what they thought about the wisdom of bringing Rahmatullah to Yale in the first place, or whether they thought the controversy of his presence was a stain on the University’s reputation or posed a grave threat to their ability to raise more millions for the endowment. But to my mind the Yale Administration covered itself in shame with what seems to have been lily-livered silence if it wasn’t something more pernicious like making sure the ex-Taliban kid wouldn’t be around for a sophomore term. It’s easy to espouse values like Lux and Veritas, another to actually adhere to them when push comes to shove. As far as I know the administration cowered 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. No one in the administration seemed to think the controversy had any lesson in it, or offered educators any teachable moments; it was just something to smooth over.

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Q: Have you stayed in touch with Rahmatullah since the story? What can you tell me about his life since Yale? 

A: I have exchanged a few emails with him over the past nine years. As I understand it he did not return for his sophomore year at Yale because he could not get a visa to come back to the U.S. after he went home to visit his wife and two kids in Kandahar in the summer of 2006. I think what happened to him is called a “soft deportation.” Some kind of government official saw him to the airport and made sure he got on the plane. Barred by the U.S., Rahmatullah enrolled at the American University in Cairo with a double major in Political Science and International Law. He graduated magna cum laude a few years ago. Mike Hoover told me Rahmatullah is now at the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Kabul where he is “working on bridging the giant intellectual canyon that he fell into. He has nothing but good things to say about his experience at Yale.” Not long ago I had a chance to read a 12-chapter English language manuscript Rahmatullah wrote about the history of the Taliban where he talks about the importance of education. Toward the end he writes: “The reason for the emphasis on education is because of my personal experience in the United States where as a student I learned first-hand that the US government was mostly indifferent about the importance of education in changing attitudes in Afghanistan. In 2006 at the behest of some hyperbolic critics, the US government not only denied me [a] visa to continue my college education in the United States but also added my name to some International Stop List which caused me serious problems in pursing my education in other countries as well. 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.”

Looking back on the tsimmis kicked up by Rahmatullah’s story in the winter of 2006, I wonder who learned more, Yale or the kid it didn’t have the guts to keep.

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