Former Taliban Spokesman Now Attends Yale Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the former mouthpiece for top-level Taliban, is now a student at Yale University. His presence at the New Haven, Conn., campus has touched off a firestorm of debate about the school’s admissions policy and U.S. security policy.

Former Taliban Spokesman Now Attends Yale

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A former member of the Taliban has caused quite a bit of controversy in this country. A spokesman for the regime back before the U.S. invasion is now a student at Yale University and that has angered some students and alumni, as Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports.

DIANE ORSON reporting:

You may remember him from Michael Moore's documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11. Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi was the chief spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He visited the U.S. in 2001. The film captured his exchange with a woman in the audience.

(Soundbite of Fahrenheit 9/11)

Unidentified Woman: You have imprisoned the women. It's a horror, let me tell you.

Mr. SAYED RAHMATULLAH HASHEMI (Spokesman, Taliban): And I'm really sorry to your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you.

ORSON: The footage shows Hashemi delivering a message to U.S. officials in Washington. But until a New York Times article outed him this year, most people didn't know he was a student at Yale. The news unleashed a storm of criticism from students, parents, alumni and on the air.

(Soundbite of The Hugh Hewitt Show)

Unidentified Man #1: John, thanks for taking the time.

Unidentified Man #2: Pleasure, Jed.

Unidentified Man #1: Let's talk about your column today, Taliban Man at Yale.

ORSON: The Hugh Hewitt Show is just one example. Hashemi did not respond to NPR's requests for an interview but Tatiana Maxwell, president of the Wyoming-based International Education Foundation, says her group is sponsoring Hashemi's tuition as a way to bridge differences between cultures.

Ms. TATIANA MAXWELL (International Education Foundation): We in the United States have invested billions of dollars and committed thousands of troops to bringing democratization to the Middle East, to Afghanistan and to Iraq. This is a young man going through that same transformation. If we can't win the heart and mind of this guy, then how are we going to win the hearts and minds of all these people, of an entire region?

ORSON: But Yale senior James Kirchick says Hashemi does not belong at Yale. He says plenty of students have political beliefs he disagrees with.

Mr. JAMES KIRCHICK (Student, Yale University): What distinguishes Hashemi from everyone else, to my knowledge, is he was actually a paid agent of a declared enemy of this country that was partly responsible for the death of 3,000 civilians.

ORSON: A student newspaper poll finds that slightly more than half of Yale's undergraduates support the decision to admit Hashemi. And as long as he's not charged with Taliban-style crimes, student Benjamin Gonzalez says he'll keep an open mind.

Mr. BENJAMIN GONZALEZ (Yale University): He does qualify for a student who can broaden the Yale experience.

ORSON: Yale alumnus Clinton Taylor set up an online blog called Nail Yale, urging alumni to send red press-on fingernails in lieu of donations to the school as a reminder of the Taliban's alleged policy of ripping off the fingernails of women who wore nail polish. He says the university should have known that admitting a former spokesman for the Taliban would be controversial.

Mr. CLINTON TAYLOR (Yale Alumnus): It's not just that they admitted the Taliban. It's that they admitted the Taliban and no one said anything about it until people started complaining about it.

ORSON: Yale's silence on the subject has bewildered many. The administration refuses interviews, but in a written statement says that universities should work to increase understanding of difficult issues facing the world. Yale officials say Hashemi was granted a U.S. student visa, which included vetting through an interagency security clearance process, and that media attention led to a review of the special non-degree program he's enrolled in.

In an interview with NPR's Juan Williams in 2001, Hashemi defended the Taliban.

Mr. HASHEMI: Who could do better than we did? This is the question. We disarmed the people, we established peace and security there. We have not been appreciated for any of these things.

ORSON: Since Hashemi is not granting interviews, it's impossible to know if his views of the Taliban have changed. But Tatiana Maxwell insists that his experience at Yale is broadening his views of America and the world.

Ms. MAXWELL: He sees wealthy students, he sees students who aren't quite in those economic brackets, who've tried very hard and have managed to get to Yale. Those things are impressive to a guy who comes from a part of the world where you know you're kind of born into a slot and you're going to die in that slot. And I think that everything about America, freedom of expression, the fact that they let this guy in, it's all having an impact.

ORSON: Sayeed Hashemi has applied to another Yale program that would lead to a bachelor's degree. If he's accepted, he'll enter as a sophomore in the fall.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

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