I thought I’d lost the ability to be shocked by anything that happened on an American university campus — that is until I read the New York Times magazine this weekend. In an article entitled, simply, "The Freshman," author Chip Brown describes a charming tale of a young man come to study at one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the country. He might more aptly have titled his piece "God, Country, and Yale." Only in this telling, God is the vengeful Allah of Islamist fanatics, and the country to which this student once pledged his allegiance is the Taliban’s Afghanistan, for the first-year Yalie profiled is none other than the former "ambassador-at-large" of the Taliban regime, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi.
Yes, Yale has decided to welcome into its fold a man whose previous visit to the New Haven, Conn., campus in March 2001 was as an official apologist for the misogynistic government that had just blown up the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan, the giant 1,500-year-old statues long considered among the most important ancient sculptures in the world. This might be just another tale of multiculturalism run amok on campus were it not for the 3,000 dead Americans buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and the more than 200 Americans who died fighting to liberate Afghanistan from Rahmatullah’s former paymasters. As it is, this story raises serious questions not just about what’s happening on America’s campuses but whether the student visa program that gave us Mohammed Atta and his murderous accomplices continues to pose threats to American security.
Rahmatullah’s journey from the Taliban to the Ivy League is a strange one told in more than 8,600 words by Brown. Rahmatullah grew up in what appears to have been a lower-middle-class family in Afghanistan, the sixth of seven children, the son of a former policeman who fled with his family to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion. According to Brown, the boy dropped out of school when he was 10 to help in his father’s shoe store, but later returned to an English-language training school for Afghan refugees run by an American charity, the International Rescue Committee.
His language training would later come in handy when Rahmatullah returned to Kandahar, Afghanistan, after the Taliban seized the city from the Afghan communist government that ruled the country once the Soviets withdrew. Rahmatullah became a translator for the Taliban, and worked his way up into the regime’s foreign office. Rahmatullah even met the Taliban’s most famous "guest," Osama bin Laden in 1997. "He came to the foreign office with some people," Rahmatullah told Brown. "He was a very tall guy. I knew him as a rich man, an Arab, but there was no reason at the time to remember his name." He also heard bin Laden speak in 1998, not long after bin Laden’s agents blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa, killing 224 people, as Brown notes.
But it was Rahmatullah’s chance meeting with an American filmmaker, Mike Hoover, that brought the young man to America, first as the Taliban’s official spokesman and then later as a student at Yale. Hoover met Rahmatullah while filming in Afghanistan in 2000, liked him, and suggested that the young man come to America to tell the Taliban’s story. Hoover even put up the money for travel expenses and arranged much of his speaking tour.
But the trip didn’t go all that well; it seems Americans weren’t all that keen to hear a defense of blowing up priceless ancient sculptures or depriving young girls of the right to be educated. But Hoover never lost faith in Rahmatullah and, in 2004, encouraged him to apply to Yale.
For its part, Yale was thrilled to have him. Yale Dean Richard Shaw came away from his interview with Rahmatullah, says Brown, "with a sense: Whoa! This is a person to be reckoned with and who could educate us about the world." Yale admitted Rahmatullah as a "special student" in January 2005. Apparently, getting a visa was no problem for this former spokesman of a terrorist regime, and Rahmatullah has been studying at Yale for the past year.
Now, Brown says with no apparent irony, Rahmatullah "plan[s] to apply for admission as a degree-status sophomore in March or April. And in May, in’shallah [If Allah wills], he would go home."
Unless Yale has gone totally mad — and with Yale, the U.S. State Department, which grants student visas — Rahmatullah should be encouraged to stay there.