Ex-Taliban at Yale: another changed mind?
The cover of last Sunday's NY Times caught my eye with the following teaser: He was the Taliban's spin doctor. So what's he doing at Yale?
Okay, I'll bite. What's he doing there, indeed?
Well, according to the article, by Chip Brown, he's doing what most of the students at Yale are doing (or are supposed to be doing): studying.
In Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi's case, the subject is mostly political science. He's a guy who got a lot of on-the-job experience in the field, as the Taliban's chief spokesperson abroad until the war that brought them down.
Rahmatullah has something to say about that, too:
Some of what I am studying at Yale in theory I think I have already learned in practice. Theory is always distant. Theory and experience hardly ever meet. I was more confident in 2001 than I am now. I was probably a better speaker then, because everything was so new to me. Before I was meeting high-ranking people — learning how to interact, how to argue, how to make points, how to write letters. I think I'm forgetting it now. I see myself not being focused enough. It's easier to learn in practice than in theory."
His Yale experience isn't the first change for Rahmatullah. He's twenty-seven years old, but he's already lived several lifetimes. One of seven children born to a Pashtun family that exiled to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion, his childhood wasn't easy. He had to drop out of regular school at the age of ten, but he did manage to enroll and learn English in a training school for Afghan refugees established by an American charity.
This knowledge of English proved to be the ticket to the rest of his life, which involved a return to Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power at the end of the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet invasion and pullout. Like many, he originally saw the Taliban as a force for order and peace in a nation torn by decades of strife and death:
"I went with my father to see Kandahar and our village," he recalled in the late-afternoon hush of the Commons dining hall. "The reason why the Taliban were so successful at first was they were seen as the ultimate good guys. They stabilized the country. The areas they controlled were unique for peace and security. I said to my father, 'I really want to join them.'"
So at sixteen Rahmatullah got his wish: he became an English translator for the Taliban. As such, his attraction to the group never seems to have been especially ideological--at least as he now tells it. There is, of course, no way to know whether he's just spinning things again, for an American reporter and an American audience.
At any rate, this is his story:
Truth be told, Rahmatullah was beginning to wonder about some aspects of life with the Taliban. He was appointed to the position of diplomat in the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad in 1998, and when Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil became foreign minister in 2000, he made Rahmatullah a "roving ambassador." The international image of the Taliban was increasingly dominated by the Vice and Virtue busybodies who were checking the lengths of beards and thrashing women with leather straps and herding crowds into the Kabul soccer stadium to witness lashings amputations and executions. Even among ordinary people, he was increasingly reluctant to appear in his black turban. Before long he found himself wrapping on turbans of a less controversial color.
"I felt better not being distinguished," he said.
These doubts didn't prevent young Rahmatullah from going abroad in 1999 as a translator and a sort of roving ambassador to try to improve the Taliban's image. He managed to visit the Gulf states, Switzerland, France, Holland, Denmark, and Germany--and then in 2000, through an American he'd met in Afghanistan named Hoover (who later was instrumental in helping him go to Yale), the US.
The article describes an interesting exchange in terms of how minds change, or begin to change, or might begin to change. The following incident occurred when Hoover and Rahmatullah were first in Afghanistan:
Over the next three weeks, Hoover and Rahmatullah traveled around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and formed a deep friendship. One night, a week or so into the trip, Hoover was sitting on the floor of the foreign office guest house in Kandahar, drinking tea as Rahmatullah and some other Taliban peeled potatoes and onions. Rahmatullah asked him a question.
"Do you believe people are related to dogs?"
Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.
"Yes," Hoover said.
The Taliban all laughed in amazement.
"How can you possibly believe that? We are so different."
"You see only differences. I see similarities."
"Similarities! Like what?"
Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.
"Bilateral symmetry," he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him.
"What does that mean?"
"It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable."
Recalling the exchange not long ago, Hoover said: "Now you could hear a pin drop — and it was a dirt floor. They were starting to get uneasy. There was a dog right outside. It was scraggly and covered with sores; I think the appropriate word for it would be 'cur.' When I finished laying out how they might be genetically related to the cur outside, they went off and started talking among themselves very intently. What they were discussing and what they wanted to understand was if what I was saying was true, would it fit within the teachings of the Koran. After a long time they came to the conclusion that it would."
In this case, the new thought was absorbed into the old system; I assume without a change in basic beliefs. But it's still an example of the ways in which beliefs can begin to change, an example of some flexibility when confronted with new information, and a willingness to listen to that information and not reject it out of hand.
In his US tour, Rahmatullah ended up lecturing and trying to defend the Taliban, despite what he says were his own doubts at the time. Audiences were often quite hostile; the majority of the verbal attacks he tried to counter (mostly unsuccessfully) were about the Taliban's curtailment of women's rights and their religious intolerance, particularly around the planned destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.
In fact, a clip of one of his unfinest hours ended up in the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." It featured a woman in the audience accusing the Taliban of crimes against women, and Rahmatullah answering, "I'm really sorry to your husband. He must have a very difficult time with you."
But as Rahmatullah reports things, his doubts had increased about these aspects of Taliban rule, aspects he'd never really cared for in the first place. When he returned home, he says:
I nearly got into a fight with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mullah Saqib, who had verified the edict to demolish the Bamiyan Buddhas," he recalls. "I said, 'Why can't we have women's education?' And he said, 'We'll have it later.' I said: 'There isn't any time. Why are we waiting?' He said to me, 'I think you were really indoctrinated by America.' That really ticked me off. I wanted something good for Afghanistan. I was saying what I was saying because it was for the good of Afghanistan, not because I was being paid by the C.I.A. He was a sycophant — he didn't want to upset the conservatives."
After the events of 9/11 the writing was on the wall and Rahmatullah's entire family left Afghanistan soon after, leaving for the old haunts in Pakistan. Rahmatullah lay low for quite a while, then in 2003 took his high school equivalency exam and ended up returning to Afghanistan and undergoing an interrogation process that cleared his name with American authorities there. After that, Hoover resurfaced and started a long chain of events that ended up with the somewhat startling result that Rahmatullah came to Yale as a special student studying political science.
Here's how a friend describes him now:
When you see him, you wouldn't believe he's the same guy. He chills with us, he cracks jokes with us. He's a fundamentalist in the way he believes in the essence of religion, but he's not an extremist at all. He gives you intellectual answers versus dogmatic answers. He's very serious and disciplined about his education. He missed a class once and was horror-struck. I said, 'Dude, we miss classes all the time!' You can tell he's seen a lot just by the aura around him. But even though he's seen a lifetime of experience already, he's young. He's thirsty for the innocence of life without war, emigration, bombs, politics, danger. Everyone needs a time to be young."
And this is what Rahmatullah himself says now about the whole thing:
I regret when people think of the Taliban and then think of me — that feeling people have after they know I was affiliated with them is painful to me. When I read that the neo-Taliban are burning girls' schools, I am ashamed."
Many distinctions could be drawn between his old life and his life at Yale. But he had seized on one.
"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."
Well, I'm not at all sure I'd agree with him that everything in the US is based on reason, even at Yale.
And even neocons understand that you can't bring the Enlightenment overnight to a place such as Afghanistan.
But if one accepts Rahmatullah's story at face value, or even as an approximation of the truth, one has to believe that change is possible, especially in the young. The force of reason is probably one of the most important tools towards effecting that change. Not for dogs, perhaps (despite the points of resemblance to us that Hoover pointed out to the Taliban)--but for humans beings, whose innate capacity for reason doesn't seem to vary very much throughout the world, despite cultural differences in the expression of that potential.
[NOTE: I'm fully aware that some may quarrel with affording Rahmatullah the opportunity to study at Yale and to be in this country at all, considering his background. And I'm likewise aware, as I said in the article, that he may be dissembling about his actual point of view, both then and now. In fact, much of the talk around the blogosphere about Rahmatullah is universally against his being at Yale. The point of this post is not to take a position on that one way or the other--I myself have some doubts about the whole endeavor.
I found, on a quick perusal of posts about this subject throughout the blogosphere, that none of their authors seem to have taken the time to carefully read the original article and to analyze what might have gone on with Rahmatullah himself. Because my particular interest is different--understanding political change--I've written this post from that perspective. And so I've decided to take the article at face value, because if it does in fact represent what actually happened, I believe it's another fascinating case of change. At this moment, my personal opinion is that it has the ring of truth. Either that, or Rahmatullah is an excellent spin doctor indeed--which is certainly possible, in which case the change would be no change at all.]