Monday, March 06, 2006

A Talib Goes to Yale

Yale University has admitted a man named Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi into a non-degree program, with the possibility of being admitted to the regular undergraduate curriculum. He is an unusual applicant in that apparently his formal education ended at the fourth grade, and he has never taken the SAT. But what is most unusual about him is that he is former deputy foreign secretary for the Taliban government of Afghanistan.

He applied in 2004 at the suggestion of an American photojournalist, Mike Hoover. (The world first learned of this in a New York Times magazine article on Feb. 26. If you have Times access it is available here, and the Times is available on Lexis/Nexis and several other databases.) He is by all accounts still devout, but not obviously a jihadi anymore. Officials at Yale are apparently delighted to have him. Richard Shaw, their dean of undergraduate admissions, told the New York Times that "We lost him to Harvard. I didn't want that to happen again." His primary virtue, according to Dean Shaw, is that he is someone who “is a person to be reckoned with and who could educate us about the world.” (These virtues are not shared by military recruiters and students who join the ROTC, both of which are barred by Yale Law School and the whole university respectively.)

The enthusiasm of Yale is a striking sign of the times. Had an official of, say, the Nazi Romanian puppet government been offered admittance to Yale after the government’s overthrow but before the end of the war there would almost certainly have been nationwide outrage. That Yale so quickly saw Mr. Hashemi as an asset rather than a liability suggests a couple of things. First, the notion of an “enemy” is one that Dean Shaw and those who see the world as he does find difficult to accept. One can be from an enemy regime with medieval attitudes toward women, gays and living peacefully with people of other religions, but if one is sufficiently thoughtful one moves beyond that.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The admission decision also suggests a belief in a particular sort of universalism, the idea that in some senses we are all the same – united by pursuit of self-interest (as economists assume), by class loyalty the inevitability of history (as Marxists once had it) or, here, by the ability to share sharply different ideas in an atmosphere of reason and to emerge more enlightened and more respectful of one another. Indeed as a state-of-the-art Western university Yale itself is a veritable temple to this idea. So devoted is it to the modern sensibility that any outrageous regime or ideology looks reasonable when refracted properly through its culture’s own belief system that Gustav Ranis, a distinguished economist there, once organized a debate in which Mr. Hashemi participated that had the incongruous title of “The Taliban: Pro and Con.” (The "Pros" of the Taliban do not jum immediately to mind, but that of course is not the point.)

Indeed, if Dean Shaw's remark above is to be believed his primary virtue is not even that but that he will help to relieve the Yale community of its ignorance. That Yale is believed to be more in need of enlightenment than, say, Pakistani madrassas is an idea that takes some getting used to, but such is the nature of the American academy these days. It is believed, presumably, that the primary gift of a Yale degree for Mr. Hashemi will be in his return to his native land inculcated with the virtues of tolerance, and in a position to help reorient the faithful in Afghanistan toward an ideology more consistent with sharing the planet peacefully with people of other faiths than his.

But one wonders. The founding father of modern radical political Islam is often said to be Sayyud Qutb, the Egyptian who wrote several tracts on Islam as political ideology. He spent time in the late 1940s on scholarship at what is now the University of Northern Colorado. But, alas, while here he was not drawn to the “Can’t we all get along?” school of cultural dialogue. Rather, he was repulsed far more than impressed by what he saw. In his eyes American racism was everywhere, and the primitive music of jazz as well as sock hops and the flirtatious behavior of young men and women at church dances were repugnant to him. These experiences would influence his writings upon his return, and those writings were instrumental in creating generations of acolytes who today can be found at the top rank of institutions such as Al Qaeda. So too previous generations of Japanese who went abroad in the years after Commodore Perry rammed his fleet into Tokyo Harbor went more to strengthen their own state rather than in pursuit of international harmony. And Japan’s ultimate conversion to the virtues of the open society came not through persuasion but through defeat and occupation by about half a million Allied soldiers.

The question Europe wonders about now as it sees its filmmakers getting their throats slashed in broad daylight, its authors and cartoonists receiving death threats and some of its parliamentarians under occasional military protection is whether there must be tolerance for intolerance. It is an interesting question whether the desire to live peacefully with the other is so overwhelming that mere sustained exposure to it is more often than not sufficient to dislodge a prior, perhaps primitive hostility. But the idea of the liberal society open to all comers depends on it. The modern West appears to have gambled on the notion that a cornerstone of its own culture – that truth emerges from vigorous contention of ideas, and that proponents of losing ideas accept their defeat graciously – is so strong that not only can it withstand such challenge from the billions around the globe who do not share this belief at present, but that taking it to its limits will eventually persuade them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I deleted your post for privacy reasons. But I did include a link to the original article as you suggested.

With regard to your argument that the admission of Mr. Hashemi is a wise act, we won't know for awhile. It seems to me that the key question is whether he emerges from his Yale experience committed to the idea of pluralism.

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, thanks for including the link. Maybe I've become too accustomed to my local newspaper, but this article strikes me as an exceptional piece of journalism. You're right, the proof for Mr. Hashemi will come after Yale.

My apologies for any compromise to the anonymity of the blog. I'll try to be more careful in the future.

9:43 AM  

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