President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York City this week, first to speak to students at Columbia University as part of their ongoing World Leaders Forum, then to address the United Nations General Assembly. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger drew disapproval for criticizing Ahmadinejad’s record on human rights and his history as a Holocaust denier in his introduction. Regardless of what one thinks of Ahmadinejad, some argued, he was an invited guest at the university and should have been treated with more deference. Having read Ahmadinejad’s remarks both at Columbia and the U.N., I think he was shown all the deference he deserved.
Ahmadinejad opened his speech at Columbia by rebuking Bollinger’s critical intro, claiming that in Iran “we actually respect our students enough to allow them to make their own judgment.” Leaving that audaciously bogus claim aside for now, what was it about what Bollinger said that kept the students in the audience from making up their own minds about the President of Iran?
After defending the university, the forum, and the invitation of Ahmadinejad, Bollinger asked Ahmadinejad a series of questions, each prefaced by grim recitations of facts relating to Iran’s recent history of human rights suppression and terrorist sponsorship. He told the story of the arrest of three Iranian American scholars, including a graduate of Columbia who is still under house arrest in Tehran. He cited Amnesty International statistics on the number of public hangings—210 in total this year, 21 on the morning of September 5, as many as thirty in July and August as part of a government crackdown on student activism and suspected attempts to ignite a “soft revolution.” The annual total of 210 includes at least two children. Bollinger concluded this section of his introduction with the questions, “Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country? . . . Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?”
Bollinger then briefly recounted the Iranian President’s history of Holocaust denial, including his nationally televised December 2005 speech in which he called the Holocaust a “legend,” and the December 2006 International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust, a summit of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists convened in Tehran by Ahmadinejad himself. “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated,” Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad. “Will you cease this outrage?”
Moving on to Ahmadinejad’s outspoken anti-Semitism and militant opposition to the state of Israel, Bollinger cited his recent comment that Israel “cannot continue its life,” and his much-quoted 2005 statement that Israel ought to be “wiped off the map.” “Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?” Bollinger asked. From there, Bollinger addressed Iran’s history as a sponsor of terrorism, singling out Ahmadinejad’s government specifically as one that “is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming, and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces.” Bollinger concluded this portion with the question, “Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and civil society in the region?”
Bollinger also had a thing or two to say about the alleged proxy war Iran is fighting against the U.S. in Iraq by arming Shi’a militias, and Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program despite worldwide condemnation and repeated U.N. sanctioning, but you get the idea. To a devout believer in the rules of hospitality, Bollinger’s scathing introduction of an invited speaker might seem offensive. But any rudeness of Bollinger’s has to be excused after what Ahmadinejad said when he finally addressed the forum.
Trying to defend his government against charges of censorship and oppression, the President of Iran painted a grim picture of life in his homeland. Responding to a question about the freedom of Iranians to access the internet, he said, “In our country there are tens of millions of people who are connected to the Internet . . . So if you're talking about . . . access perhaps to immoral sites, well, you would agree with me that those sites are harmful for society. Nobody can really allow access to those.” By “immoral” he means not only pornography, but foreign websites critical of Islam and Iran, and pretty much anything his government deems threatening. In the next breath, demonstrating either the brazenness or the astonishing ignorance attributed to him by Bollinger, Ahmadinejad said “[O]ur people are the freest people in the world.”
Ahmadinejad justified his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel by claiming “it is based on ethnic discrimination, occupation and usurpation,” ignoring the vicious ethnic and religious discrimination inflicted on the citizens of Iran by his government. Jews and Christians are recognized as minorities and afforded certain rights of citizenship, but atheists, so called “irreligious people,” and members of the Baha’i faith are persecuted and harassed, and prevented from attending universities or holding government jobs. And the rights of Jews only go so far: in 2000 13 Jews were arrested and imprisoned after being suspected of spying for Israel; in 1994 and 1999 the official government-controlled media published the discredited anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
President Ahmadinejad described women in Iran as “the freest women in the world.” In the past Iran has been more progressive in its attitude toward women than other Muslim nations, but it remains a religious patriarchy ruled by blatantly misogynistic Sharia law. Women are legally inferior to men; for a woman to charge a man with rape, she must have the testimony of at least four witnesses. Since this past spring, Iranian police have harassed and arrested hundreds of women for not dressing conservatively enough, failing to cover their hair, or wearing overcoats that are too form-fitting.
Most disturbing of all, Ahmadinejad denied the very existence of homosexuals in Iran: “[W]e don't have homosexuals, like in your country . . . we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.” The denial comes as his government is in the midst of what Doug Ireland of In These Times labels an “anti-gay pogrom” that has included multiple public executions of gay men. In July 2005, two gay teenagers—one 18, one 16—were publicly hanged. Officially, they were being executed for the rape of a young girl, though the rape charge is generally accepted to have been fabricated. According to Ireland’s article, men convicted of homosexuality in Iran have their pick of four methods of execution: hanging, stoning, halving by sword, or dropping from the highest perch.
No government that treats its citizens as does the one in Iran can be called civilized. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leads an oppressive, theocratic regime in a society that is anything but free and democratic. Those who refer to him as an elected leader should be reminded that in Iran, all candidates must be approved by a Guardian Council appointed by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a religious zealot who has spoken out strongly against equality of the sexes, homosexuality, and music education.
Ahmadinejad was afforded more respect than he deserved the moment the invitation to speak at Columbia was extended. Bollinger was correct when he called him a petty and cruel dictator. He was right to preface Ahmadinejad’s address with the facts about the tyrannical theocratic government he heads in the Islamic Republic of Iran, not, as Ahmadinejad suggested, to prevent the students listening from making up their own minds, but to equip them to do that very thing.
I think inviting Ahmadinejad to speak was the right thing to do. Freedom of speech should not be denied even to the most vile and repugnant of men. Men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be allowed to speak. And they must always be answered.