SHOULD THE PRESIDENT OF COLUMBIA INSULT THE PRESIDENT OF IRAN?

Today, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, speaks at the United Nations. Let’s hope he gets a more civil reception than the one he got yesterday at Columbia University.

The fact to remember is that the Iranian president was invited to Columbia by its president, Lee Bollinger, to address the students and faculty. President Bollinger introduced him and began his remarks this way: “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.” Bollinger’s 10 minute remarks went down from there. He accused President Ahmandinejad of being anti free speech, anti women, anti gays, anti students, anti the Holocaust and for the destruction of Israel. He then predicted that the Iranian would not have the intellectual courage to answer the questions put to him.

Now the point is not whether these accusations are true. Most of them are. The question is whether it was appropriate to level them against an invited guest. President Bollinger’s strategy was clear. He was really speaking to the Jewish lobby which had harshly criticized Columbia for inviting the Iranian in the first place.

But President Ahmandinejad was also speaking to a wider audience – the Muslim world. And other Muslims would have been as insulted as he was. I daresay the encounter was a propaganda coup for the Iranian.

When Columbia invites a foreign dignitary to speak, one would have thought the University was confident enough in itself to provide the speaker (even a strong enemy) with the conditions asssociated with free speech. That did not happen at Columbia yesterday. A pity.

10 Comments »

  1. 1
    Barbara Says:

    While not a member of what you term “the Jewish lobby”, I find the positions held by Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust and supplying weapons and logistical support that further destabilizes the region, claiming a need for nuclear power while sitting on an ocean of oil, etc. to be horrendous. While the president of Columbia might well have been incredibly gauche and impolitic, he probably felt pressure from a number of quarters to make it clear that Ahmadinejad was not to assume that an invitation to speak at Columbia (a dumb move to begin with, I think) was to be construed as a tacit acceptance with his positions. Did you hear how he was loudly laughed at by the audience for claiming there are no homosexuals in Iran? They hang homosexuals in Iran.

  2. 2
    Joanne Nicholls Says:

    The President of Columbia did a great disservice to many people. Yes, Ahmadinejad is most of those things, but most people are aware of it. Or, if they weren’t they would soon would be given the nature of his usual remarks.

    Ahamdinejad was an invited guest of Columbia Univerity regardless who was in favour if it or not and he should be treated with the respect of an invited guest. This looks very poorly on the University as a whole.

    The President also has responsibilities to his student body–he should allow his students to make up their own minds on Ahmadinejad and the Iranian position rather than bias the young people even further before the speech is made. Isn’t that what universities are there for–discussion, discourse, debate and the ability of students to think critically?

    It also gives anti-Western Muslims more ammunition against the West. We don’t need that. There is enough hostility already.

    Anyway, the President was irresponsible.

  3. 3

    Barbara – Certainly you could argue that he should never have been invited. But he was. And it seems to me he deserved some civility as a guest.

    Joanne – I certainly agree and don’t think his cold reception at Columbia cut much ice in the Muslim world.

  4. 4
    Barbara Says:

    Neil, if civility is the be all and end all, then the President certainly deserves censure. If nothing else, he needs better ghostwriter.
    Do you know what the endgame for Ahmadinejad is? I don’t. I have heard he is not in the most secure situation politically in Iran. Perhaps this dog and pony show he brought to New York was meant to shore up his reputation with the folks at home, giving him some international stature. Treating him as an honoured guest with great deference may possibly have negative consequences.
    By the way, I have heard most Iranians are pro-Western and would like to be rid of this guy.
    I wish I knew all the answers.

  5. 5

    Barbara – In some respects you are quite right. Ahmandinejad has very little power in his own country. Khomeni is the big cheese. Ahmandinejad will be lucky to be reelected. But he is much more popular with some Muslims because of things like his support of the Palestinians. This guy’s one great gift is his ability to get publicity and manipulate the media. For the President of Columbia to call him a dictator totally exaggerates his power.

  6. 6
    curt Says:

    Sure, everyone can agree that freedom of speech is a good thing. It’s great! But when people think that they’re being forced to extend this right to dictators with well documented pasts of committing crimes against humanity, their feelings can quickly change.

    The college president, Lee Bollinger prefaced Ahmadinejad by saying, “It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices.” He also cited the quotable expression about how free speech is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” and apologized in advance for any suffering that giving this speaker a public forum would cause.

    Before turning to Ahmadinejad he finished on the subject, “In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counterproductive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.” Bollinger furthered the introduction by condemning the government of Iran for unjust imprisonment, public executions, and other violations of human rights.

    I think that the subject of free speech can transcend politics. I think that debate in all forms is usually a good thing and I really think that Columbia’s prez eloquently expressed this–His thoughts on freedom of speech were the best I’ve ever heard in my life.
    The Bliggity No Diggity Blog-a-Log

  7. 7

    Curt –
    I agree with you that President Bollinger’s characteristics of free speech were indeed eloquent. Too bad he didn’t follow them when he decided to call his invited guest a bunch of names. Why not give the Iranian a one-sentence introduction, listen to his remarks, then turn the mike over to the students to have at him? Wouldn’t that have been a much more civilized way to do it and it would avoid the Muslim press now decrying the insult to President Ahmandinejad. Thanks for your very informed comment. I plan to check our your blog.

  8. 8
    Barbara Says:

    Yes, indeed, thank you Curt for your addition to the discussion. It would seem, from a more complete text of his introduction, that it was intelligent and more balanced than it first appeared. Free speech works for university presidents as well and free speech is not always civil, thank goodness.
    I suspect the response “back home” for Ahmadinejad would be spun in his favour in the face of any sort of reception.

  9. 9
    curt Says:

    Excellent points all around! Neil, from the preliminary jumps I’ve made around your blog it seems you’re a pretty intelligent guy. This is the exact reason why I began blogging–To get a more balanced and interactive view of the world.

    I agree that for Bollinger to make his introductions as he did wasn’t in the most usual, or proper, or polite manner. But in doing so he forced Ahmandinejad to confront, or rather debate issues which wouldn’t have been brought up.

    Also, in response to a previous comment pertaining to Bollinger,
    “The President also has responsibilities to his student body–he should allow his students to make up their own minds on Ahmadinejad and the Iranian position rather than bias the young people even further before the speech is made. Isn’t that what universities are there for–discussion, discourse, debate and the ability of students to think critically?”

    I’m from the University of Florida and am studying environmental science. I can say first hand that there are some REALLY stupid college kids. There are a lot of stupid people in general.

    I think that had the Iranian prez been given a simple one-sentence introduction he would have played on the proverbial heartstrings of the ignorant or those just to lazy to care about his previous transgressions.

    Okay, I’m done. Have a good weekend all!

  10. 10

    Curt –

    Thanks for your very intelligent comment. I still wonder, though, whether it would not have been better to have given the Iranian President a one-sentence intro, then let him hang himself with his own petard and be judged accordingly. This would have precluded the Muslim press from playing the victim card.
    Have a great weekend yourself and good luck in your studies.


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