Ahmadinejad at Columbia
Like him or hate him, there is no denying the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a master at making people uncomfortable. His presence in New York these days, where he is set to address the UN General Assembly, was accompanied by an invitation by Columbia University for him to deliver a speech, which he did last night amid high security and thousands of rowdy protesters. The invitation for the head of a so-called “state sponsor of terrorism” to visit a bastion of the country’s higher-learning institutions was not without controversy, and Columbia’s president received a fair amount of heat from US representatives and citizens for opening the university doors to a man who has been dubbed anything from a “tyrant” to “cruel dictator” to “super-terrorist.”
But the fact of the matter is, despicable or not, honest in his skepticism of the extent of the Holocaust and his messianic calls for the “destruction of Israel” or a mere political opportunist, Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia was necessary, as it came at a time of great tension between Iran and the US and within the region as a whole. Aside from the longstanding accusations by Washington and its allies that Tehran is attempting to acquire and develop nuclear weapons, in recent weeks the US has accentuated its accusations that Iran is meddling in the affairs of, and arming militants in, Iraq and Afghanistan. A great part of the saber rattling on those issues is the result of miscommunication — or worse, the absence of any communication — between the two states, something that has long characterized US-Iranian relations.
So here was the occasion, in an institution of learning, for people to hear first-hand, without media distortion, what Ahmadinejad had to say about the US, Iraq, Palestinians, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and other topics. There was ample material in his speech to disagree with (including his farcical assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran), and to be honest the former engineer lacks the charisma and moral suaveness of his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, whose own presence in the US years ago, when he called for “dialogue between civilizations,” also sparked controversy. But all that notwithstanding, only when leaders can express their opinions without the countless filtering layers of diplomacy and biased media and exchange those ideas with students and professors, in collegial fashion, will nations that make it a tradition to talk past each other manage to see eye-to-eye. For all in attendance yesterday saw a man, faults and all, before them — not the devil some media have portrayed him as incarnating, not a nuclear-weapons wielding, religiously deranged mullah posting checks left and right to Hezbollah and the Taliban and Iraqi Shiite rebels — a man, who even smiled as his host welcomed him with a barrage of accusations.
Irrespective of whether one agrees with the content of Ahmadinejad’s speech yesterday, at the end of the day his presence at Columbia University will probably have accomplished more for Iranians and Americans than his address before the General Assembly, which like that of other leaders there, will be wordy but ultimately less than pithy.
(An aside: For reasons that are all too obvious, Ahmadinejad was prevented from visiting the World Trace Center site to pay his respects to the victims of 9/11 — this despite the fact that Iran had absolutely nothing to do with those attacks. And to those US politicians who shook with indignation at the thought that the Iranian leader could be allowed to step on US soil, well, what can one say but to point out that, after all, he is responsible for far less deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan than his US counterpart.)
So kudos to Columbia University, which took a not inconsiderable risk inviting the Iranian leader. And congratulations to those who attended — from the angry crowds to the academics — for, unlike the occasion in 2002 when former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Concordia University in Montreal, sparking such unruliness and violence by protesters that his speech had to be canceled, they greeted the controversial leader with commendable maturity.
One would hope that universities the world over would do this more often.