Baccalaureate Address: "Our god"

By David Rohde ’91 / July/August 2010
June 3rd, 2010
The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting, New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped with the Taliban on June 20, 2009 with his fellow prisoner, an Afghan journalist named Tahir, after seven months in captivity. On May 29, during Commencement weekend, Rohde delivered the Baccalaureate address at the First Baptist Meeting House. After his release, Rohde wrote in a gripping five-part account of his capture and captivity, which was published in the Times last October. He was part of the Times's reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rohde also won a Pulitzer for international reporting in 1996 for his Christian Science Monitor coverage of the Srebrenica massacre. Rohde found the first forensic evidence of the slaughter of at least 7,000 Muslims in the region of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was supposed to be a United Nations-protected "safe zone.'' He was also detained and interrogated by Serbian authorities for ten days while investigating Srebrenica. Accused by the Serbians of being a spy on behalf of Muslims, Rohde was released in part due to the intervention of Richard Holbrooke ’62, who was then the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs. The following is the text of Rohde's Commencement addres; watch a video of it here.


Thank you for that extraordinarily kind introduction, President Simmons

It is a tremendous honor to be asked to give this address.

But let’s be honest. I think that the class of 2010 would have preferred if Snoop Dogg was giving this speech.

For the parents who aren’t in this church, Snoop Dogg is a rap star. And this address is for the students, by the way.

He’s a rap star who was here for Spring Weekend, and he gave his own advice to the students of Brown.

A censored version of that advice would be three things:

Get up in the morning
Brush your teeth
And party

Jokes aside, there’s so much promise and intelligence and earnestness in this church today that I know none of you could live that way even if you wanted to.

I congratulate you and I applaud you and your families on this day. After four long years of arduous work, you should relish this moment.

I’ve entitled this address “Our god.” Don’t worry. The title is tongue in cheek. I know Brown well enough to not dare deliver a lecture on becoming more religious.

I also adopted no religious extreme during our captivity. I did not convert to Islam, nor did I become a fervent Christian, the religion I was raised in.

For now, I am using the term god in the broadest possible sense. I am talking about the beliefs that will lead you through life and give your existence meaning and purpose.

For some of us, our god is money.

For some of us, our god is power.

And for some of us, our god is fame.

My beliefs have evolved over time. When I was at Brown, my gods, so to speak, shifted like clockwork. First, I was interested in Sociology, then History, then community service, and then Semiotics.

And to be honest, I was intimidated by all the students from New York and Washington; who wore black clothes and smoked cigarettes and seemed so much more intelligent than myself, who had come from a public high school in Maine.

Finally, an English professor named Roger Henkle -- who has since passed away - taught a non-fiction writing class that made journalism my god.

After I graduated, becoming a documentary filmmaker was my god. Then, getting a job at a newspaper. Then, reporting abroad.

I hope you can see where I’m going here. After you graduate, your gods will change as much as they’ve changed over the last four years.

You may be an atheist or an agnostic now or not even care about religion, but in the decades ahead, age, illness and tragedy will put you face to face with religion in ways that you do not expect today.

My seven months in Taliban captivity showed me religion at its best and at its worst.

In November 2008, a Taliban commander invited us [Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist, and Asad Mangal, an Afghan driver] to an interview outside of Kabul.

He had given interviews to two foreign journalists before, but when we arrived he abducted us and took us to the tribal areas of Pakistan, an area where Afghan, Pakistani and Arab militants operate a Taliban mini-state, and where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

For the next seven months, the Taliban faction that had abducted us – a group known as the Haqqani network - saw me as a dirty, heretic because I did not share their faith.

They believed I was bitten by fleas and had stomach problems because my non-Muslim body was impure. Their interpretation of religion, their god, made them hate me.

They hated my two Afghan colleagues even more. Because Tahir and Asad worked with non-Muslims, the Haqqanis considered them traitors. Many Americans ask me where are the moderate Muslims who oppose militancy.

In fact, twice as many Afghans and Pakistani soldiers have died fighting the Taliban as American soldiers since 2001. And Islamic militants have killed far more Muslims during that period than members of any other faith.

In my case, I stand before you today in large part due to the braveness of Tahir. He showed me the positive side of religion.

Tahir is a devout Muslim who prayed every day. But his interpretation of Islam led him to see me – and all human beings – as god’s precious creation.

While our captors followed a hard-line interpretation of Islam that called for summary executions of those they deemed impure, Tahir focused on passages in the Koran that called for life to be cherished.

Tahir was absolutely convinced that if he died he would go to heaven. Before my eyes, his faith strengthened and sustained him.

To keep my spirits up, I created gods of my own. My family became my god. I spent hours telling Tahir about my new wife Kristen – who is sitting here today.

We had met late in life and married two months before I was kidnapped. Our union elated my mother – who is also here today.

After allowing my career to be my god for years, at the age of 41 I was allowing the building of a family to become my god.

And here I can’t resist, I have one piece of Brown trivia that even Snoop Dog can’t match. My wife Kristen graduated from Brown one year after I did. But we did not, in fact, date at Brown and we did not even know each other. We only have a vague memory of meeting in passing once on campus.

Sixteen years after I graduated, a mutual friend from Brown reintroduced us in New York. And the rest is history.

Beware. You may have already met your future husband or wife – they may, in fact, be sitting in this very church -- and you don’t even know it.

I salute and thank my wife, my mother, my family and my editors. They never gave up hope and they never stopped trying to free us.

While I was in captivity, another unexpected source of hope raised my spirits. My guards gave me a copy of an English-language Koran to read. The book, they hoped, would make me join their faith and support their cause.

Instead, it made me turn against them. I am not a Muslim and I am not an expert on Islam, but reading that 700 page English-language Koran cover to cover made me believe that the Haqqanis were distorting Islam. Over time, I saw them as criminals masquerading as a pious religious movement.

As they held us for months and demanded prisoners and money in exchange for our release, I noticed that each chapter in the Koran – as well as each of their daily prayers – began with these words:

“In the name of God, the beneficent and the merciful.”

I learned that the Islamic prophet Muhammad - like all the great prophets - was known as “al Amin” – “the trustworthy” - and revered for his honesty, humility, desire for justice and disdain for greed.

And I read passages in the Koran that struck the same ideas as all the world’s great faiths – repentance, forgiveness and tolerance. Here are examples:

From the Koran:

“O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct.”

From Hinduism:

“One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.”

From Buddhism:

“Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by not hating.”

From Judaism:

“Though shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”

And from Christianity:

“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

By our seventh month in captivity, Tahir and I’s god had become our desire to end the suffering of our families and ourselves. At the same time, we wanted our captors to get nothing in exchange for us.

That led us to make what seemed like a foolhardy decision. On June 20th, 2009, electricity came back on in the town where we were being held captive.

Hoping the noise from a ceiling fan and a crude air conditioner might hide our movements, we agreed to an impromptu plan.

First, Tahir kept the guards up late playing a local board game close to Parcheesi. Then, while our guards slept, we snuck out of the room and crept up a flight of stairs onto the roof. There, we used a car tow rope I had found in the house two weeks earlier to lower ourselves down a ten foot wall.

Once outside, we walked alone through the streets of the militant stronghold terrified that we would be recaptured. As dogs barked at us, we were sure the Taliban would find us. We assumed we would fail, but at least know that we had tried to escape.

Tahir – who had used his trips to the doctor to understand the layout of the town - led the way. After ten minutes, I silently began to doubt him and I assumed we were lost.

Then, I heard a man to our left load a rifle and scream a command in a language I didn’t understand.

My heart sank. I assumed the Taliban had recaptured us. Then Tahir said words I could scarcely believe.

He said: “this is the base.”

We had made it to the town’s Pakistani base – our goal. Yet still, at the same time, I knew we were not safe.

As we stood in the darkness that night, our god became the sentry with his rifle aimed at us.

We were two bearded men dressed in Pakistani clothes who he suspected might be suicide bombers. For fifteen minutes, we held our hands in the air and pleaded with him to allow us to come inside.

We laid down on the ground; we took off our shirts to prove we were not suicide bombers. And finally, a 26-year-old Pakistani captain received permission to bring us inside the base.

Once we crossed the barbed wire, the captain apologized to me for what had happened to us. He said he was embarrassed as a Pakistani and as a Muslim for how we had been treated. He was religious but moderate and did not share the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

I’m still in touch with that captain. When I spoke with him earlier this week by phone, I asked him why he was so kind to me that night. His answer was immediate.

“It’s only natural,” he told me. “One man can see another man’s suffering.”

What made the captain see my suffering when our guards did not?


For me, the greatest flaw we have as humans is our ability to lose our compassion. To delude ourselves into thinking we are right and others are wrong. To turn members of different groups into a dangerous “other.”

In my twenty years as a journalist, I have seen members of every major faith commit horrible atrocities.

In general, to me, religion in moderation appears to bring out our better angels. While religion in extremes, can bring out our worst.

In Bosnia, Christian extremists slaughtered 8,000 Muslims [in Srebrenica].

In the Palestinian territories, Jewish settlers dismissed Muslims as animalistic.

In India, Hindu nationalists raped and slaughtered Muslims.

And in Sri Lanka, Buddhist extremists abused Hindus.

I found that people who did unspeakable things to their fellow man were not sadists who knew they were doing wrong and perversely enjoyed it.

Instead, they believed they were acting in self-defense and saving their faith, race and culture from attack. They believed they were acting righteously.

Today, back home, I am saddened and alarmed by rising political polarization in our country and acrimony in our society, the demonizing of those of different political beliefs.

You – the members of the class of 2010 --are entering a world that is globalized yet polarized.

Your generation will enjoy the benefits of a world that is more interconnected economically, culturally and politically.

Paradoxically, though, many of us seem to be becoming more territorial, suspicious and reactive.

Too often the arrival of other political philosophies, cultures and religions leads us to circle our psychological wagons and dismiss others as wrong. Becoming more interdependent seems to make us less tolerant.

I ask you to remain open and optimistic. I ask you to show compassion. I ask you to be the captain.

Do not disdain those people who have different life goals and values than you. Do not unquestioningly embrace or dismiss supporters of, yes, Barack Obama, or, the tea party. Do not interact only with people who share your beliefs.

Don’t be spoon-fed by your familiar and comfortable information source of choice.

Think for yourselves. Challenge yourselves. Explore your opponents’ thoughts and beliefs. And never question their motives.

Beware of the false gods of money, power and fame.

And do not grow too sure of yourselves. One of the gravest maladies that beset our times is our certainty that we are right.

Trust me. Life will humble you as it humbled me.

Most of all, do not doubt yourselves. Do not despair. Do not discount how rapidly seemingly hopeless situations can reverse.

As President Simmons said, one year ago I was pacing back and forth in a mud-brick compound.

And here I am today standing before you.

My time in captivity left me with these thoughts.

I do not hate Afghans, Pakistanis or Muslims for what happened to us. I blame the individuals who kidnapped us, not their nationality or faith.

Many Afghans and Pakistanis have personally apologized to me for what happened to us. And this morning, a Brown student from Pakistan - Arsalam Ali Faheem - took me aside after my forum and apologized to me as well. I thank him for that and I urge you all to not blame others without cause.

If you are religious, I respect you and I humbly ask you to consider that you may have more in common with other faiths than you realize.

And even if you are not religious – as I remain – you can have ideals.

Professionally, my days as a war correspondent are over but I intend to make my god the continued pursuit of truth through journalism.

Personally, I intend to make my god the reduction of tensions between religions.

I have one last message I want to convey to you.

Take these words with you from brown.

Take this memory from you today.

Look at the programs you hold in your hands.

Look at the Brown seal.

Look at the motto in the center of it.

In Latin, it reads “in deo speramus.”

Those words do not mean, “in god we trust.”

Those words do not mean, “in god we believe.”

Those words mean, “in god we hope.”

Make hope your god

I thank you and your families.

And I congratulate the class of 2010.

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Related Issue
July/August 2010