VIEW: The Taliban at Yale — Saleem H Ali
Earlier this year, Yale allowed the former ambassador at large of the Taliban, Sayed Rehmatullah Hashemi to enrol as a part-time, non-degree student at the university. This anomalous admission was soon under fire from the conservative media in America as emblematic of a dissident-friendly academia. However, much to the chagrin of its many conservative alumni, including President George W Bush, the university did not yield to the political pressure
Until recently, perhaps the only connection one might make between one of America’s great universities and the erstwhile regime of Aghanistan was that Ahmed Rashid’s celebrated book on the Taliban was published by Yale University Press. However, there is now a far more direct connection between the Ivy League institution and the fundamentalist militia whose origins were indeed as a student movement. Earlier this year, Yale allowed the former ambassador at large of the Taliban, Sayed Rehmatullah Hashemi to enrol as a part-time, non-degree student at the university. This anomalous admission was soon under fire from the conservative media in America as emblematic of a dissident-friendly academia. However, much to the chagrin of its many conservative alumni, including President George W Bush, the university did not yield to the political pressure. Of course many liberal politicians also have their pedigree with Yale. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton met as students at Yale Law School. Indeed, the university attracts students across the political spectrum. It admirably stood by its decision to admit Mr Hashemi.
In a simple statement, Yale administration responded that universities are places that must strive to increase understanding, especially of the most difficult issues that face the nation and the world. Furthermore according to the State Department, Mr Hashemi was issued US visas in 2004 and 2005, first as a tourist and then as a student. All security procedures were followed, and he was cleared by American federal agencies — a sign that US officials are now willing to provide visas without prejudice and not follow guilt by association, as was the case when notable scholar Tariq Ramadan was regrettably denied a US visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame.
Perhaps India and Pakistan might also follow a similar path in granting visas without prejudice to each other’s citizens. This year alone, hundreds of academics and peace activists have been denied visas by either side under the ever-expanding pretext of national security and have been unable to engage in educational exchange, attend conferences and other events. Every time there is some political row, it is such innocent travellers who suffer while the governments’ flex their muscle. Only last month a major conference in Islamabad had to be cancelled because Indian delegates were denied visas. If — despite their paranoia — the Americans can allow a Taliban leader to study at Yale, surely India and Pakistan can allow for easier travel.
As for Mr Hashemi’s time at Yale, it will certainly be a life-changing experience. While it is often associated with secret societies and elitism, in reality Yale is perhaps the most egalitarian among the Ivy League. It was the first to award a doctoral degree to an African-American student in 1876 and has been willing to grant tenure to unconventional intellectuals, including famed Pakistani writer, Sara Suleri-Goodyear. While Harvard recently distanced itself from a study critical of Israel by Prof Stephen Walt, Yale has been far more willing to embrace critical pluralism, even if it may cost the university alumni contributions. When Texas billionaire and Yale alumnus Lee Bass, offered to give the university $20 million to start a new programme in Western Civilisation, the Yale administration refused to accept the gift because of the racial undertones of the effort.
The positive impact of Mr Hashemi’s time in New Haven, Connecticut (where Yale is located) is perhaps showing already. For the first time he is able to interact constructively with people of other faiths and traditions. According to the New York Times, he has visited the Slifka dining hall where kosher meals are served for Jewish students. Similar dietary laws are the most palpable connection between these two Abrahamic faiths, and meals can at least promote regular interaction between Muslims and their Semitic brethren. Instead of the vitriolic rhetoric of his Taliban tradition, Mr Hashemi is seeing the similarities between Jews and Muslims and the possibility for coexistence in ways that seem so distant to the people of Afghanistan and indeed Pakistan.
Educational institutions have been at the heart of America’s rise to power. With over 3,000 centres for higher education, the United States towers above most developed countries in its commitment to learning and granting student visas and scholarships for foreign students. Despite the historical roots of European universities, there is no doubt that American universities are attracting scholars from around the world because of their accessibility and freedom of expression. Numerous luminaries have been lured away from the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge largely because of the independent spirit and opportunities, which their American counterparts have provided. American universities have also been places of refuge for scholars such as Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who taught in exile from his homeland at Emory University in Georgia.
Despite its many failings, America’s system of higher education might yet be its source of inner strength and resilience. As a product and part of this system, I am perhaps biased, but what gives me confidence in the American ivory tower is that it remains in a perpetual state of construction and renovation. Self-criticism within academia is rare in many parts of the world where teachers consider themselves oracles or sages on stages. Educational institutions must indeed be places of collective learning where students with divergent perspectives — as far a field as a former Taliban official and a Hasidic rabbi — can break bread together.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont. He can be reached at email@example.com