In 2006, we first learned of a former Taliban spokesman studying at Yale. Eight years later, we follow up for the rest of the story.
It was the kind of profile the New York Times Magazine is known for: a deftly-written piece that regaled its audience with intricate details about an otherwise inaccessible character.
But Chip Brown’s “The Freshman,” published as the magazine’s cover story on a Sunday in February 2006, kicked off a series of reactions that were incongruous to its sympathetic tone. Almost immediately after hitting newsstands, the 9,000-word piece was met with a paroxysmal rage that circuitously exiled this “freshman” from the very collegiate ranks that Brown had documented.
That’s because the freshman profiled was hardly a typical student; he was former Taliban spokesperson Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, 27 years old when the article came out. As Brown reported, Hashemi had been a diplomat in the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad in 1998, then a “roving ambassador” in 2000.
Likewise, the school was hardly a typical college; Yale has a rich and storied history of cooperation with the intelligence community (Yale-CIA ties are explored in Robin Winks’ book Cloak and Gown, among other works) — a fact not likely lost on visitors to New Haven. The former Taliban spokesman attended classes on a campus adorned with a statue of American Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, who was executed by the British after being captured while on an intelligence mission.
Now, eight years later, as the war winds down in Afghanistan and recent news attention has bubbled over with reports from the country’s presidential elections, figures like Hashemi reveal a more personal side to delicate U.S.-Afghanistan relations. Many questions about Hashemi’s time at (and departure from) Yale remain publicly unanswered.
There are things that Chip Brown himself still wonders.
“I was dismayed to learn that Rahmatullah’s apartment was staked out and he was chased around New Haven by a TV crew from FOX News,” Brown wrote in a recent email, when I asked him to describe his story’s impact.
Brown’s Times cover story showed Hashemi as a young man disenchanted with the direction of the Taliban — initially thought to be Afghanistan’s savior — and who came to the U.S. to seek an education and secure a better future for his family.
It was not the first media coverage that Hashemi received in the U.S. (though it was the first major attention paid to him in his capacity as a college student). In early 2001, pre-9/11, Hashemi embarked on an American media tour as an envoy for the Taliban, meeting with State Department officials and delivering lectures at several universities. At the time, he was tasked not just with speaking on behalf of a tendentious government, but with defending the Taliban’s very recent destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a UNESCO world heritage site with ancient religious statues predating Islam. Hashemi was subsequently rebuked by many Americans.
In one well-publicized instance, a woman heckled him while he spoke at the Atlantic Council. Hashemi’s response to the woman’s outburst — “You have imprisoned the women – it’s a horror, let me tell you,” she shouted — was filmed, and the clip was included in Michael Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11. “I’m really sorry to your husband,” Hashemi responded to the woman. “He might have a very difficult time with you.”
Occasionally, the Times article downplays the controversial nature of Hashemi’s attendance — with controversy reserved for his days as a spokesman, not a student. In one scene, Brown describes a debate that took place at Yale in early 2001 between Hashemi and two Yale professors: “The Taliban: Pros and Cons.” The professors come across as impassioned (though sometimes misinformed); Hashemi plays the quick-witted comeback kid, rebutting their critiques with polished talking point from his media appearances: “Well, if you were my only source of information about the Taliban, I’d hate them too!”
Brown explained to me that what sparked his initial interest in Hashemi was not a desire to follow-up on the controversial character, but a simple tip that Hashemi would be attending Yale in the summer of 2005 — specifically, the non-degree program for special students. Several of Brown’s friends had met Hashemi through filmmaker Mike Hoover, a confidant of Hashemi’s, who was credited in many news reports with having helped him get into Yale that summer.
“I thought his experience getting an education in America would be an interesting and instructive story,” Brown wrote to me.
Brown’s article closes optimistically, with Hashemi preparing to apply for admission to Yale as a degree-status student after completing several semesters in the non-degree program.
To some, it was a story of the redemptive power of education. To others, it was diversity run amok.
After the story ran, Hashemi’s application was denied, despite his having received a recommendation from Charles Hill, a diplomat-in-residence and distinguished fellow of international security at Yale at the time.
“I thought he would be a good student. I thought he would benefit from being educated at Yale,” Hill told me recently over the phone. “I recommended him, so I thought he should have been admitted. I’m sorry that he was not.”
Asked to comment, a spokesman for the university replied that “Yale doesn’t discuss why any applicant isn’t accepted. Only two of the 29 students who applied to the degree-granting program for nontraditional students were accepted” that same year.
After the Times article was published, the question posed by critics wasn’t on the matter of Hashemi’s degree application, but rather why he was admitted to Yale’s non-degree program in the first place.
Led by columnist John Fund of the Wall Street Journal (who had interviewed Hashemi in early 2001), some criticized Yale for what they considered to be a blind inclusion that disregarded the Taliban’s crimes. “This is taking the obsession that the U.S. universities have with promoting diversity a bit too far,” Fund wrote on the Journal’s editorial page just days after the Times piece ran.
Fund was joined in his outrage by Yale ’96 alumnus Clinton Taylor, who corralled an unknown number of Yale alumni to join in a campaign to pull donations to the university if Hashemi was allowed to remain a student.
Referred to as the “Nail Yale” campaign, Taylor used a blog post on the conservative website Townhall.com to call for like-minded alums to mail fingernail clippings and fake plastic nails to the university in lieu of money. (The gesture was an allusion to past Taliban threats to rip out the fingernails of polish-wearing Afghan women.)
“I’m very glad I took the time to pursue the issue,” Taylor recently told me, via email. “I still think the Taliban is evil. They’re still the same bunch of homicidal thugs they always were, and I still think Yale’s choice to admit their spin doctor was a tremendous mistake.”
“I still think Yale’s choice to admit [the Taliban’s] spin doctor was a tremendous mistake,” says the ‘Nail Yale’ founder
Trey Popp, a ’97 graduate, wrote in the May/June 2006 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine that Inge Reichenbach, then-vice president of development for the Yale admissions office, told him that “in the spring of 2006, [her] office received 50-100 letters packed with plastic fingernails and human fingernail clippings,” though Popp noted that “most came from non-alumni, and many arrived from a single address.”
“Some people felt very strongly that this is not a situation that Yale should have put itself in,” Reichenbach told Popp. “Others were very supportive, emphasizing that Yale is an educational institution, and it’s here to educate people.”
As to whether Hashemi disrupted Yale’s campus prior to the Times piece, it is unclear. Professor Peter Stillman, who taught Hashemi in his “Introduction to Political Philosophy” class, barely remembers the student. “Sayed was one of about 30 students in a five-week Yale Summer Session course, and I have no clear memories of him,” Prof. Stillman responded when asked to comment. “I could not say anything of interest — indeed, I could not say anything at all — about him.”
Some protesters were “eager to turn one Yale student into a symbol of everything they despised about the Taliban,” Brown says
In 2006, Jim Sleeper, a journalist and political science lecturer at Yale, weighed in on the controversy in the online edition of The American Prospect. Sleeper suggested that Hashemi’s presence was more complicated than publicly presented by Yale officials, and likely was not a part of any diversity initiative.
In an email exchange earlier this year, Sleeper suggested that Hashemi’s enrollment may have been in association with national intelligence efforts, though he emphasized both on the phone and in email that he could not prove such a connection. “My only interest in this story is not whether Hashemi was working for or with American officials,” Sleeper wrote to me. “My interest in this story was that the conservative noise machine put the university through a lot of unnecessary grief suggesting that this was diversity run amok.”
Sleeper added, “I have no proof that Hashemi came to Yale thanks to Yale alumni in the State Department and national intelligence agencies who hoped his avowed conversion to Western principles would be an asset in their struggle to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan.” Sleeper claims his “hypothesizing” about Hashemi’s CIA ties was corroborated “by one usually-reliable source.”
Todd Ebitz, a media spokesman for the CIA, declined to comment on whether there were any connections between Hashemi and the agency in the past or whether there have been any continuing connections.
Charles Hill, the former Yale diplomat-in-residence, remembers Hashemi as a “very pleasant, well-spoken, polite, serious man,” and said that Hashemi had requested a recommendation from him prior to applying for the degree status program. Hill told me flatly that to connect Hashemi to the CIA was, “not the way to think about things. They’d need more soundly-based evidence to speculate.”
Brown, who has kept in touch with Hashemi over emails, agrees. “Do you think if my research suggested any of this I would have omitted it? You might ask, did I go out of my way to disprove it? No. But then there are a hundred other far-fetched and patently absurd scenarios I didn’t get to the bottom of either. Most conspiracy theorists are tragically ignorant of the law of parsimony.”
Ignorant or not, such theories were heaved at Hashemi as he took a fall after his Times exposure.
“I was disgusted by the outpouring of self-righteous hostility and general shortsightedness on the part of people eager to turn one Yale student into a symbol of everything they despised about the Taliban and to flog Yale for wanting to impart the merits of a liberal arts education to a remarkable student,” Brown recently told me. “I wonder if the ‘Nail Yalies’ know what they didn’t learn while [they] were so busy driving off the sort of student who might have helped them understand what the US was getting into.”
“That feeling people have after they know I was affiliated with [the Taliban] is painful to me,” Hashemi told Brown in an interview for his 2006 article. “When I read that the neo-Taliban are burning girls’ schools, I am ashamed.”
Brown says that his understanding of Hashemi’s fate after being denied acceptance into the degree program was through filmmaker Mike Hoover and via correspondence with Hashemi himself.
“I learned first-hand that the U.S. government was mostly indifferent about the importance of education in changing attitudes in Afghanistan,” Hashemi wrote
“He did not return for his sophomore [non-degree-program] year at Yale because he could not get a visa to come back to the U.S. after he went home to visit his wife and two kids in Kandahar in the summer of 2006. I think what happened to him is called a ‘soft deportation,’” says Brown. “Some kind of government official saw him to the airport and made sure he got on the plane.”
According to Brown, after Hashemi left the United States, he enrolled at the American University in Cairo with a double major in political science and international law, and graduated magna cum laude a few years ago.
Nowadays, says Brown, Hashemi is employed at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, where he is “working on bridging the giant intellectual canyon that he fell into. He has nothing but good things to say about his experience at Yale.”
For his part, Brown’s support of Hashemi only seems to have grown over the years.
“Not long ago, I had a chance to read a 12-chapter English language manuscript that Rahmatullah wrote about the history of the Taliban where he talks about the importance of education,” Brown says via email.
He went on to quote Hashemi’s manuscript: “The reason for the emphasis on education is because of my personal experience in the United States, where, as a student, I learned first-hand that the US government was mostly indifferent about the importance of education in changing attitudes in Afghanistan. In 2006 at the behest of some hyperbolic critics, the U.S. government not only denied me [a] visa to continue my college education in the United States, but also added my name to some International Stop List, which caused me serious problems in pursuing my education in other countries as well. It was education that had shaped my world view in the past, education that shapes it now; and education that will continuously shape my outlook in the future.”
The Peace Research Institute Oslo did not respond to an email to confirm Hashemi’s work there, though their website lists him as a researcher.
Hashemi, however, replied to my request for an interview from an email address associated with the institute. Signing off as “Rahmatullah,” he stated simply what both answers all and none of the questions surrounding his mysterious persona.
“I feel my story is over-told,” Hashemi wrote. “Therefore I am not interested.”
Rebecca White is Narratively’s Director of Operations, as well as an editor and regular contributor to the publication. Her work has also appeared in such outlets as The New York Times and Al Jazeera America, among others.