Like most other people affiliated with Yale University, I was shocked to learn that a former high-level spokesperson for the Taliban, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, has been enrolled in the non-degree “special students” program since last summer. The story broke in the February 26 issue of the New York Times Magazine, which detailed how the 27-year-old Hashemi rose from obscurity to become the public face of one of the most brutal regimes in human memory. Then-dean of admissions Richard Shaw gushed to the Times that “the interview with him was one of the most interesting I’ve ever had. I walked away with a sense: Whoa!”
Those who have no idea who Hashemi is might remember him from his brief appearance in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, in which, at a speaking engagement, he tells a female heckler, “I’m really sorry for your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you.” In that one comment, Hashemi embodied the smug indifference of the barbarians who ran Afghanistan prior to the 2001 American invasion.
Initially, I was open to the idea of Yale educating Hashemi. After all, if we ever want to change Muslim “hearts and minds,” where better to start than with a former member of the Taliban? But in a follow-up interview with the Times of London–the only interview he has granted since the New York Times piece–Hashemi put to rest my doubts that he is anything but an unrepentant apologist for his former employer.
Asked about public executions in football stadiums, Hashemi gave this response: “There were also executions happening in Texas.” Did he regret the snide comment he made to that female heckler some five years earlier? “That woman, for your information, did divorce her husband.”
Never mind the fact that Hashemi has only a fourth-grade education. His unabashed support for the actions of religious fascists ought to have signaled to even the most credulous of admissions officers that Hashemi was unfit. As former Yale president Kingman Brewster’s famously put it, “A demonstrated failure of moral sensitivity or regard for the dignity of others cannot be redeemed by allegations that the young man is ‘extremely interesting.'”
Applicants to Yale have been denied access for far less offensive things than shilling for a murderous enemy regime. An anonymous Yale admissions officer told the Wall Street Journal that applicants for the class of 2010 had been rejected for shoplifting at the age of 12 and for drunken behavior at a high school prom. Yet most liberals on campus have failed to make any statement in opposition to Hashemi–not because they support his being here, but because they cannot stand those calling for Yale’s head.
As could have been predicted, the story was manna from heaven for the right-wing media: Liberal Ivy League schools and their love for anti-American authoritarians! The situation was perfectly suited to the right’s popular caricature of America’s institutions of higher education as incubators of extreme cultural relativism. John Fund, a weekly columnist for OpinionJournal.com, devoted an astonishing nine weeks’ worth of columns to the story, in addition to a column in the paper itself. The Fox News trifecta of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and John Gibson all got their licks in. Add the New York Post, the New York Sun, the Washington Times, syndicated columnists Linda Chavez and Deroy Murdock to the mix–not to mention the horde of right-wing bloggers and talk radio hosts who gleefully piled on–and you had a 21st century version of God and Man at Yale in which anyone could have their shot at the Ivory Tower.
There was no good reason why liberals shouldn’t have joined in, but they failed to summon an appropriate reaction. Indeed, most of the outspoken liberals on campus seemed to formulate their positions as a mere inverse of what conservatives had to say. Admitting that he had not “met [Hashemi], and I can’t judge whether it’s appropriate for him to be here,” liberal Yale Daily News columnist Roger Low instead railed against the “army of conservative pundits” who “have no idea how to win the actual debate,” but “know how to distract everyone from it.”
In an open letter to Fund posted on the American Prospect Online, Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper boasted that he bore “the body scars of one who has excoriated the liberal-left for many of its sins, yet is not a conservative, but a civic republican in the old-fashioned, disinterested sense of the term” and went on to inform “the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page editors” that they “have gone the way of Robert Whitewater-Bartley.”
But the most revealing commentary came from my friend Mark Oppenheimer, who holds a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate from Yale in religious studies and who currently serves as editor of the New Haven Advocate. When the story broke, Oppenheimer was supportive of Hashemi, stating that “this young Taliban dude sounds more qualified than most of my classmates and I were. I mean, he speaks four languages!” To top it all off, Oppenheimer complained about “right wing boobs . . . doing their fake fury thing.”
A month later, after most of the rhetorical dust had settled, Oppenheimer atoned in an article entitled, “When the Right’s Right.” He wrote that “Yale should not have enrolled someone who helped lead a regime that destroyed religious icons, executed adulterers and didn’t let women learn to read. Surely, the spot could have better gone to, say, Afghani women, who have such difficulty getting schooling in their own country.”
Noting that he had turned down invitations to appear on Hannity & Colmes and MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, Oppenheimer said, “Although I don’t mind agreeing with principled conservatives, it’s awfully upsetting to agree with jokers like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.”
Demonstrating an honesty that eludes most of his peers on the left, Oppenheimer ruefully admitted that “the harder [the right] flogged this issue, the more I became convinced that they had to be wrong. I just feel better across the fence from them.”
Oppenheimer is not the only one to change his views. A professor of mine–who, like Oppenheimer, was initially more concerned with the bellicose right’s attack on Yale’s reputation (and with good reason)–told me that the deal-breaker for him was learning that a colleague had to ask Hashemi to leave his seminar due to the ex-Taliban’s belligerent behavior towards other students, an incident that Fund first reported. Never in his many years of teaching, my professor said, had he ever had to resort to such a measure.
The tendency to define a political position based not on a judgment of the actual values at stake but rather upon the opposite of one’s political opponents is hardly exclusive to the left. The very right-wing blowhards that Oppenheimer says drove him to support Hashemi, namely, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, are the apotheoses of knee-jerk right-wingers who more often than not say ridiculous things exclusively to get a rise out of the left.
But if liberals ever wish to regain power in American politics, they will have to be proponents, not contrarians. Taking a principled stand against Yale’s decision to admit and heap praise upon a former Taliban official, even if in agreement with blowhards like Hannity and O’Reilly, would be a good place to start.
James Kirchick is a senior history and political science major at Yale University and a columnist for theYale Daily News.