Debating Ahmadinejad at Columbia

25 Sep
The New York Daily News cover when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York in 2007

The New York Daily News cover when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York in 2007

A TALL man with white hair, wearing a US-flag print shirt and pants, patrolled the sidewalk at 116th and Broadway. He waved a huge American flag as he marched, in movements that were nearly metronomic in their consistency. Stacks of brochures sat on a bare and rickety table, waiting to be handed out to anyone who didn’t look away quickly enough. Bystanders stared.

I hadn’t been back to my former school almost since I graduated. Returning as an alumna of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the school that sponsored Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s talk here on Monday, I felt the puff of pride that Columbia had not backed down in the face of media pressure. I also felt just a little bit cheated that it was happening now, when I was attending as an outsider, rather than the first time his talk had been announced, in 2006, when I was still a sleep-deprived student.

The police officers stationed in and around the university, beginning at the platform of the subway that I had taken to get there, looked at everyone suspiciously. Women in dark, severe suits monitored the entry of the press, taking signatures and examining credentials. Everywhere, people in uniforms directed the human traffic and at certain entrances demanded identification. Fliers lined the walkway to the main quadrangle and littered the brick paths. Students milled around the campus, talking excitedly in tight groups or listening to the speakers outside Low Library. Homemade placards offered silent counterpoint to some of the speeches delivered at the podium. “Ahmadinejad Is not Iran Just Like Bush Is not America,” said one. “We Say No to War on Iran,” proclaimed another. And a third, my favorite, in black paint on a wood sheet: “Free Speech for All, Even Douche Bags.”

Representatives of various organizations were eloquent in their denunciation of Ahmadinejad’s professed views on Israel and the treatment of women and homosexuals in Iran, yet many supported his right to speak at the university. Many declared that they had never felt prouder to be associated with Columbia. Some said that they had never felt more ashamed.

Matteen Mokalla, an Iranian-American student at SIPA studying the Middle East, spoke of the mood on campus. “Before the talk, the entire campus was electrified,” he said. “Everybody was talking about it. When we were standing in line, we joked, ‘Is this the line for the Rolling Stones?’ Because it felt like that.”

But that pride and excitement was tarnished by the opening remarks of Columbia President Lee Bollinger. In his statement, combative and unduly vicious, Bollinger accused his invited guest of being nothing more than a “petty and cruel dictator,” of having a “fanatical mindset.” He claimed that this exercise was valuable in knowing one’s enemies and understanding “the mind of evil.”

These words were prefaced by his describing the invitation to Ahmadinejad as the “right thing to do.” As abhorrent as Bollinger’s parroting of Bushisms is, the invite was the right thing to do. Not because the Iranian president has a right to share some of his more odious views but because of “our right to listen. We do it for ourselves.”

But where were all these references to freedom of speech just last year, when Bollinger first endorsed, then rescinded, the SIPA invitation to Ahmadinejad? Then-SIPA dean Lisa Anderson had invited the Iranian leader to give a lecture. Bollinger has claimed that the invitation was taken back because he wasn’t sure that the exchange would reflect the “academic values” that the platform stood for. He also called Ahmadinejad’s views “repugnant.” Campus gossip, however, put the reason as outside pressure. What else could it have been, the whispers went, when the university president at first endorsed Dean Anderson’s invite but backed off the next day?

That’s why it was all the more disappointing when students showed up to hear their president uphold all the values of free speech in the face of withering media criticism—only to hear him stoop to name-calling.

“Bollinger’s remarks were uncalled for,” said Julie Payne, a second-year SIPA student and co-editor of SIPA’s student newspaper, Communique. “There was no need for a fifteen-minute tirade, nor for using some of the adjectives he did. Everyone disagrees with [Ahmadinejad’s] rhetoric, but debate shouldn’t be so debased by using that language.” Bollinger’s opening remarks changed the nature of the discussion at Columbia. After the talk, said Mokalla, “the discussion was not about Ahmadinejad at all. Bollinger was outrageous. If he feels this way about him, why invite this man? Twenty of us were talking about it for two hours afterward. It was a bit embarrassing because he sounded like President Bush or like a neoconservative ideologue.”

Bollinger’s comments were radically different from other introductions he has given in the course of the World Leaders Forum, an annual cluster of talks hosted by Columbia, where visiting heads of state are invited to address students on campus.

I remember attending a similar lecture two years ago, in the fall of 2005, in my first semester as a SIPA student. It was a talk by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a leader closer to my home country. As one of many Indian students at the event, I burned with questions I was dying to pose about democracy, women’s rights and peace with India.

Then, as yesterday, we arrived more than an hour in advance. On each of our seats was a pamphlet with a brief history of the leader. I was astonished to find that, according to his biography, Musharraf “assumed the office of chief executive of Pakistan in October 1999.” There was no mention of the coup through which Musharraf seized power. Not once did Bollinger refer to the military man, who had overthrown the elected government and then refused to hold elections as promised, as a dictator—a word he seemed to have no problem using to describe Ahmadinejad. The question of how Musharraf “assumed office” was delicately avoided, a diplomatic skill that has clearly been forgotten in these two intervening years. No one seemed curious to know how Musharraf’s rhetoric about democracy fit in with his continued reign as a dictator—at least, no one with access to a mike.

Neither Bollinger nor the press has been so forgiving of Ahmadinejad. He has been attacked in all quarters—from the front pages of New York’s daily newspapers to the sidewalks outside Columbia’s main gates to the podium where he was invited to speak. He has been called “thug,” “madman,” “tyrant,” “dictator” and more. And in this volley of words, an important opportunity was lost.

Sitting with a bunch of his Iranian friends on the lawn with the thousands who couldn’t get into the lecture hall, Bill Berkeley professed himself disappointed with the direction of the debate. An adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, Berkeley is the author of a book on Rwanda and is currently at work on another on Iran. “I didn’t feel the discussion moved forward,” he said.

For in the melee of questions about the Holocaust and wiping Israel off the map, Ahmadinejad got off with mouthing generalities about loving all nations and admitting that the Holocaust had indeed taken place. (“Given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time,” said the Iranian president, “we should have research to approach this from different perspectives.”) He got a free pass on issues that many Iranians would have liked to see raised, such as women’s rights, homosexuality (according to Ahmadinejad, homosexuals simply do not exist in Iran) and the misdeeds of the Revolutionary Guard.

Iranian SIPA student Hani Mansourian knows what his question would have been. “I would have asked him, ‘If you support a referendum in Palestine, and if you say that women are free in Iran, why don’t you hold a referendum in Iran and ask women whether they want to wear the hijab or not?'” For all his evasion of questions posed to him, on some points Ahmadinejad was eloquent and passionate. His support for the Palestinian people dominated the speech. “For sixty years, these people are being killed. For sixty years, on a daily basis, there’s conflict and terror. For sixty years, innocent women and children are destroyed and killed by helicopters and airplanes that break the house over their heads.”

He was persuasive when it came to Iran’s nuclear policy. Recalling the after-effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he asked, “What can a perpetual nuclear umbrella threat achieve for the sake of humanity?”

In this face-off between Bollinger’s prefacing remarks and Ahmadinejad’s speech, the university president “made Ahmadinejad look the winner,” said Mansourian, “and that’s not what I wanted.” The Iranian, like the rest of us, wanted a real debate, one in which Bollinger would practice what he had preached the previous year in a campus-wide e-mail to students.

“In a society committed to free speech,” it had said, “there will inevitably be times when speakers use words that anger, provoke, and even cause pain. Then, more than ever, we are called on to maintain our courage to confront bad words with better words.”

Sadly, what Bollinger had in his arsenal were not better words but Bush’s words.

This article was published on The Nation‘s website on 25 September 2007.

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