Backstage: Fareed Zakaria ’86

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Journalist and Yale trustee Fareed Zakaria ’86 defies convention. An intended science major, he became president of the Yale Political Union and quadrupled its membership. He entered the world of journalism and, at 28, became the managing editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine. During his career, Zakaria crossed and recrossed the lines between print, magazine and broadcast. Along the way, Zakaria has penned two best-sellers, “The Post-American World” and “The Future of Freedom.” In addition to his weekly CNN program “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” he served as the international editor of Newsweek before recently moving to Time Magazine.

On Tuesday, Zakaria spoke at the Whitney Humanities Center for the dedication of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. A major focus of his public discussion centered on improving secondary and higher education in the United States. WEEKEND sat down with Zakaria after his appearance at the dedication to talk about his academic and extracurricular career at Yale, anti-Islamic sentiments and the future of Newsweek.

Q. What were the international classes and programs like when you were a student at Yale? How do they compare to ours today?

A. I think everything at Yale was better now than when I was here. I had a fantastic time. I love Yale. I mostly took history. I studied with a then-obscure professor named Paul Kennedy. I think Paul was in his first or second year when I took his seminar. But I didn’t have the benefit of the long reign of Rick Levin to throw vast amounts of resources and intelligence at the campus. [Laughs.] No really, the place looks so much better now — more vital. It’s more vibrant. All that said, I had a grand time here. But don’t do a time experiment and go back to the ’80s. Those were not good old days — you are living in them.

Q. When you first came to Yale, you intended to be a science major. What made you change your mind?

A. I wanted to be a science major just because I was an Indian. [Laughs.] It was just what you were supposed to do. So I came here and I was taking math, physics, computer science. I was learning to program in Fortran and C++ and BASIC. All totally useless skills at this point. And then I took Brad Westerfield’s “Introduction to International Relations.” That’s when I realized this is where my heart is, where my passion is. So I went from taking four science courses and one non-science course to flipping it around the next semester. I still kept doing math for a while. But the wonderful thing about Yale is that it encourages that kind of passion.

Q. Recently the Yale Political Union invited Karl Rove to speak at an event. During your time as president of the YPU, did you invite any controversial figure to campus?

A. Oh my God! Remember, I was at Yale during the Cold War and during the Reagan Years, so it was much more politically charged. All you guys want to work at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. In my day — remember it was just past the ’60s and ’70s — people were revolutionaries who wanted to remake the world. I had Caspar Weinberger come when I was the president of YPU and we had huge protests. He was the Secretary of Defense for Reagan. We had people in the audience stand up and scream at him. It was a much more charged atmosphere. We had a Nicaraguan Sandinista — there were more people outside the auditorium than inside. Politics was a much more high stakes game than it is now.

Q. Right now there is a lot of anti-Muslim hatred in America. You came from a Indian Muslim background and your father was a Muslim scholar. When you first came to United States, did you feel the country was welcoming?

A. Oh yes, very welcoming. I do think one can exaggerate the anti-Muslim feeling. Most people in America are warm and welcoming. I don’t think there is that rampant Islamophobia. It is a problem, but it is largely whipped up by political forces because they know it’s an easy way to scare people when they are feeling insecure about their economic condition. I don’t think Americans, as a nation, are bigoted at all. People didn’t know where I came from, what [my name] was — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. One of the horrible things that happened in America right after 9/11, which tells you something about America, is that a bunch of Sikhs got beaten up because Americans couldn’t tell the difference between who is a Sikh and who is a Muslim. They thought somebody wearing a turban and with a beard — that he must be in some way a suspicious character. Ronald Reagan once said Americans don’t care about people’s origins, they care about people’s destinations. I think that is a really nice way to put it. That was the America I experienced and continue to experience. I have had very few encounters with prejudice in America.

Q. Speaking of destinations, where is Newsweek headed, now that many of its editors have left for other publications?

A. Well, I wish it well. The person who bought it [Sidney Harman] is a lovely man. We should all be as politically-active and intellectually-engaged as he. He is 92 years old — he is actually older than the magazine, which is an amazing thing to consider. I think print journalism is facing all kinds of challenges and you have to be very careful about what your niche is, how you manage it. But one thing I will say: journalists are not so dispirited. There is a tendency to believe you are in the business of making stagecoaches once the car was invented. That is not true. There is an enormous demand for the product. More people read me online — 10 times more — than when I started writing my column at Newsweek, because of the web. The problem is that we have not figured out what the business model is. That is a very real problem, a very serious problem. But when The New York Times has 25 million people reading it each month on its website, when The Guardian has a reach it never could have dreamed of when it was the Manchester Guardian — this is not a problem of basic demand. Lots of people read what’s going on around the world and educate themselves about it. There is a real problem with the business model. Somebody in the next five or 10 years is going to figure it out and I hope Newsweek will be able to ride that transition.

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