Rahmatullah Hashemi and Malalai Joya seemingly have much in common. Both are 27, come from the same region of Afghanistan and are interested in international relations. But the similarities between Hashemi, silver-tongued former spokesman for the Taliban, and Joya, one of the new Afghani Parliament’s youngest members, end there. Not long ago, while Hashemi toured the United States defending the public murder of unchaste women, Joya risked her life to teach girls — which at the time was a capital crime.
Visiting last week, Joya gave Yale a piece of her mind. Hashemi’s presence here is, to her, “disgusting” and an “unforgivable insult.” When I asked whether she believes herself to be more deserving of a place here than a former (and current) propagandist for the Taliban, she replied, without a trace of bitterness, “I am not jealous.” She has a country to rebuild and is working hard to do so. While she has survived several assassination attempts in the past four years and must travel with armed guards in Afghanistan, Hashemi noshes on the kosher offerings at the Slifka Center and defended the Taliban to the Times of London in an article three weeks ago. Joya does not have time for an American college education. “My people need me,” she says.
“Hashemi at first should face the court,” she told me, demanding he be brought to his native country and answer for his role in advancing the Taliban’s foreign policy goals so many years. Surprisingly for a man who loved the press so much five years ago — speaking before crowds at universities across the country, meeting with editorial boards of influential newspapers, appearing in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” — Hashemi has laid low since his tell-all profile was printed in the New York Times Magazine last month. But in the Times of London interview, Hashemi proved himself to be a morally glib apologist for religious authoritarians.
Asked about public executions in football stadiums, Hashemi said, “That was all vice and virtue stuff. There were also executions happening in Texas.” Irate that a Yale-issued textbook would relate his former employer to the terrorist group it sponsored and hosted in the run-up to Sept. 11, Hashemi complained, “They would say the Taliban were the same as al-Qaida.”
“This kind of germ does not belong in the U.S.,” Joya told me, and after having heard the few scraps of equivocation Hashemi has shared in the month since his front-page expose, I am inclined to agree. Had Joya been caught for her underground activities during the Taliban era, she probably would have been publicly executed and Hashemi would have defended her public murder. Correction: might still defend her public murder.
Former Yale Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw told the Times Magazine Hashemi “could educate us about the world.” Whether one believes Hashemi should be at Yale or not, his presence has been instructive in one way: It has caused a reckoning at Yale over the issue of cultural relativism.
Outrage over religious fascism ought to be the province of American liberals. But in Hashemi’s case it has been almost entirely trumpeted by Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and right-wing bloggers. A friend of mine recently remarked that part of his and his peers’ nonchalance (and in some cases, support for) Hashemi has to do with the fact that the right has seized upon the issue. Our politics have become so polarized that many are willing to take positions based on the inverse of their opponents’. This abandonment of classical liberal values at the expense of political gamesmanship has consequences that reach far beyond Yale; it hurts our national discourse.
In a bold declaration that she will, with any hope, one day come to regret, Della Sentilles ’06 wrote on her feminist Weblog, “Broad Recognition,” “As a white American feminist, I do not feel comfortable making statements or judgments about other cultures, especially statements that suggest one culture is more sexist and repressive than another.” While I cringe at the implications of this, I applaud its honesty. It lays bare a method of thinking that is quite pervasive on our campus, and that many, if not most, students claim allegiance to. It is at once racist — for holding non-Westerners to a lower standard of behavior — and dangerous in its cold abandonment of those who suffer under totalitarian and theocratic regimes. “They shamelessly defer to oppressive religious and cultural norms in the name of respecting diversity, betraying the victims of oppression in the process,” British gay-rights activist and self-described “radical, left-wing Green” Peter Tatchell wrote of his comrades on the left who refused to condemn barbaric practices in Muslim societies. Joya has no problem saying Taliban Afghanistan was “more sexist and repressive than” the U.S. Why can’t Sentilles?
As with any spin doctor, it is difficult to discern what Hashemi thinks, so crafty is he with language. He is quite adept at getting what he wants from Westerners with guilt complexes, be they adventurous CBS cameramen, Ivy League admissions officers or self-professed “feminists.” Come this summer, if Yale refuses to accept Hashemi as a degree student, few of us will be sorry to see him go.
James Kirchick is a senior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.