IMAGINE IF you were in college and found out that the guy next to you in class had worked as a propagandist for one of the most oppressive regimes of modern times.
For some Yale students, this is not a theoretical question. Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former spokesman for Afghanistan's Taliban government, was admitted to the university last year as a special student in a nondegree program; this spring, he plans to apply as a regular student.
Hashemi's story came to light after he was profiled in an article in The New York Times Magazine. In 2001, not long before the destruction of the World Trade Center and the subsequent removal of the Taliban regime by the US military, Hashemi visited the United States on a speaking tour defending the Taliban.
Now, the 27-year-old Hashemi's presence at Yale is the center of a controversy. Is his admission an example of bridge-building or diversity gone mad?
A person with a bad past may deserve a second chance. Yet Hashemi's recent statements show a consistent tendency to whitewash his former masters. He suggests that the Taliban regime went bad because ''the radicals were taking over and doing crazy stuff" -- as opposed, presumably, to the sane and moderate early days. On the public executions of adulterous women, he explains to the Times of London that ''there were also executions happening in Texas."
On his 2001 trip to the United States, Hashemi had a public exchange with a woman who tore off a burqa and denounced the plight of Afghan women. His response (preserved for posterity in Michael Moore's ''Fahrenheit 9/11") was, ''I'm really sorry for your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you." What does he think of that incident today? To the Times of London reporter, he noted that the woman did get divorced.
One striking aspect of this controversy is the reaction from Yale's liberal community. Della Sentilles, a Yale senior, recently wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News denouncing such manifestations of rampant misogyny at Yale as the shortage of tenured female professors and poor childcare options. On her blog, a reader asked Sentilles about the presence at Yale of a former spokesman for one of the world's most misogynistic regimes. Her reply: ''As a white American feminist, I do not feel comfortable making statements or judgments about other cultures, especially statements that suggest one culture is more sexist and repressive than another. American feminism is often linked to and manipulated by the state in order to further its own imperialist ends."
John Fund of The Wall Street Journal, who has been following the story, writes that the Yale students he interviewed were unanimous in their opinion that the reaction to Hashemi would have been more hostile if he had been associated with, say, the apartheid regime of South Africa. One senior told Fund that the general feeling was that it wasn't appropriate to be as judgmental toward non-Western regimes.
And the reaction from faculty? Jim Sleeper, a journalist and political science lecturer at Yale, has responded in the online edition of The American Prospect by attacking Fund (whom I know personally) instead of addressing the issues.
Sleeper also suggests that Hashemi's ''enrollment was facilitated less by the 'diversity' ethos than by yet another of Yale conservatives' recent, bumbling efforts to revive the university's old conduit to national intelligence."' (To this end, he gratuitously insinuates that Hashemi's American patron, filmmaker Mike Hoover, may have intelligence ties.) Perhaps that was a part of the motive. Either way, the fact is that Yale officials thought that Hashemi was someone who, in the words of one former dean, ''could educate us about the world." Whether coming from conservatives or liberals, that's a severely blinkered mentality.
If there is a justification for Hashemi's admission, it's that he can learn something from us. Chip Brown, the author of The New York Times Magazine story, tells the Hartford Courant that ''America would be a lot safer from terrorists if there were thousands of Rahmatullahs being educated in the US instead of the madrassas of Pakistan." Good point. But surely, these educational efforts could be directed toward young Muslims who don't have a record of collaboration with a brutal extremist regime -- and don't make excuses for that regime.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.