Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

What are we afraid of?

The facts: Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a 27 year old Afghani, has caused a huge stir recently at Yale. Hashemi was once a member of the Taliban, and in fact was its international spokesperson due to his intelligence and facility with languages. He came to Yale in 2001 to defend the Taliban's record on women's rights in a debate against Dean Koh of the Law School. This year, he returned to Yale-- as a student-- under the sponsorship of an alumnus. He is currently enrolled in a non-degree-granting program, but has recently applied to be in a degree-granting program. Many people (both on and off campus) are violently opposed to Hashemi being allowed to study at Yale. A whole protest group has been sending envelopes full of plastic fingernails to the Yale Development Office (see Nail Yale, below) supposedly reminiscent of the Taliban's gruesome punishment for women who wear nail polish.

Some relevant info:
1. Hashemi is not living in the dorms, not receiving financial aid, and not taking a spot from any would-be undergraduate student (due to the fact that he is enrolled in the "Special Students" program).
2. Hashemi has made public statements to reporters that, while not repudiating his past, are critical of the Taliban regime and are positive about the USA and the West in general. Making these kinds of statements would be political (and perhaps literal) suicide if Hashemi was planning to return to some kind of Taliban-government-in-exile. There is no evidence that he is currently involved with any kind of terrorist group; indeed, one would imagine that his tenure studying at a US university would disqualify him for activities of that kind. As Hashemi himself said in the February 2006 NYT article by Chip Brown(link below):

''You have to be reasonable to live in America,'' he said. ''Everything here is based on reason. Even the essays you write for class. Back home you have to talk about religion and culture, and you can win any argument if you bring up the Islamic argument. You can't reason against religion. But you cannot change Afghanistan overnight. You can't bring the Enlightenment overnight.''

Scary, right? Oh, wait-- not so scary.

My take:
A university is precisely the place for a person like Hashemi to be encountering the USA and for people in the USA to be encountering Hashemi. What experience could better help students understand the dynamics behind repressive juntas than speaking with an actual former Taliban member? How could it not be an enriching experience to have a conversation with Hashemi about his values, his assumptions, his understanding of the situation in Afghanistan, his thoughts about religious fundamentalism? I would like to think that part of any university education should be encountering people with alien perspectives and defending one's own ideas in light of those radically different views.

Consider the question from the perspective of how Hashemi will report on his experience when he returns to his homeland. What is preferable: 1. That he describe how he was rejected and that Americans found his very presence threatening Or 2. That he return having been welcomed into a community of thinkers and scholars who were willing to engage with his ideas, values, and concerns and perhaps challenge some of his assumptions? We need more Hashemis coming to the USA and learning that we aren't all unthinking monsters, that we aren't all knee-jerk anti-Muslim bigots, that we aren't all materialistic, corrupt, and degenerate. His fundamental assumptions may or may not change during his time here at Yale, but rejecting him would clearly send the message that we are afraid of him and feel that we have nothing to offer a lapsed fundamentalist. To the contrary, I think that only by welcoming those lapsed fundamentalist leaders will we actually be able to reach a state of peaceful coexistence with the countries in the Middle East we are currently alienating with the war in Iraq.

At Yale, I met plenty of fellow students whose morals and values I violently disagreed with. Did I question their characters? Absolutely. Did I question their right to be students in an open academic environment? Not unless they were legacies (but that's another issue altogether). Yale turns out plenty of CEOs for profit-hungry multinational corporations that exploit millions of people all over the globe. That's different than being a member of the Taliban, you say? I agree with you that planned terrorist violence is located on a different part of the "bad things" scale, but I think it is on the same scale as the forces that allow a corporation to pay its workers starvation wages, force them to work in a plant where they will likely die young due to industrial poisons, and "dissappear" them when they attempt to unionize.

Yale reports that "character" is one criterion for admission. However, I honestly think that if a student will not endanger or threaten the well-being on other students on campus, Yale has no business pretending that it can judge an applicant's character. Let the students engage each other in open discussion and exploration and figure out for themselves what constitutes a person of "character."

For more information, see. . .

Two articles from the New York Times about Hashemi, including the February 2006 profile of Hashemi that started it all:

The recent article in the Yale Alumni Magazine:

The opposition's blog, Nail Yale:


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