Ahmadinejad @ Columbia



Iran’s Ahmadinejad.

The news is abuzz with anticipation of Ahmadinejad’s speech today at Columbia. As a Columbia alum, I had very personal feelings towards hearing the news that Iran’s president Ahmadinejad would be speaking at Columbia. Some Democratic critics of the administration (I am a Democrat by the way) say that the US must talk to its enemies, and that our continued refusal to talk to countries Iran is counterproductive. These critics argue for dialogue and defend the decision to allow Ahmadinejad to speak as a First Amendment right. I do not agree with this.

We need to be careful that we do not legitimize a man that is undeserving of legitimization, and I think that allowing Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia does to an extent legitimize him. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a fabrication, arranged state-sponsored pseudo-conferences with phony or racist academics aimed at undermining this near-universally acknowledged event, called for the destruction of Israel, heads a government that has kidnapped and imprisoned on trumped-up charges Iranian-American scholars and NGO members, and lately, according to the US military, has been funneling weapons to insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq that have resulted in the deaths of US troops. Iran also remains a state-sponsor of terror groups like Hezbollah. On top of all this, we must also consider the abominable human rights record of the Iranian regime. I do not think the halls of one of America’s finest institutions are fit for such a leader of such a country, and I am angry that the leadership of my university has allowed him to set foot on its grounds.

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, has said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll ask him tough questions,’ (see his statement below). Does Mr. Bollinger believe that tough questions have not been asked of Ahmadinejad before by other journalists, other countries’ leaders and officials? What exactly does Mr. Bollinger believe that Ahmadinejad will say at Columbia that he has not said before at other venues to other people? The only thing that will be different will be the attitude of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Seeing the event for what it is, a propaganda opportunity, Ahmadinejad will likely be on his best behavior. I don’t expect him to say any new, revelatory, or productive things that would help unravel the current nuclear crisis, or fundamentally change Iran’s policy towards Israel, the US, the Middle East, terror, women’s rights, or freedom of the press. He is aware of the existence of principled opposition to his ideas and policies, and the best illustration of this would have been not to invite him.

The other reason which Bollinger uses to defend his decision is to say that this is fundamentally a First Amendment issue, and that Columbia, as a bastion of these rights, should be able to intellectually confront and reject these ideas. While a quaint notion, in practice such an idea has limits. There is such a thing as hate speech, and I agree with Germany and other countries in believing that some ideas do not deserve and should not have the protection of our society because they seek to undermine the very notions on which a civil society is formed. I believe Ahmadinejad’s utterances about the Holocaust, about Israel, are hate speech, and Iran’s policies on human rights show what kind of a world Iran would prefer us to live in. I do not believe his views need to be confronted. They have been confronted in the past and rejected by civil, democratic societies. I think this occasion only serves to air Ahmadinejad’s ideas in a place where they do not deserve or need any intellectual study.

Bollinger’s statement houses is couched in some nice ideas. But you cannot have dialogue if only one side is listening. I doubt President Ahmadinejad will be doing any of that. Those who think he will are simply naïve.

As for exercising our own freedoms, check out the ridiculous policy at Columbia cracking down on entry to the campus and also “noise”, likely to be aimed at potential protesters. Check the primary documents below.


Dear members of the Columbia community:

On Monday, September 24th, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is scheduled to appear as a speaker on our Morningside campus.

The Department of Public Safety is working closely with both the New York Police Department and the Secret Service – as we do for all major events on campus – to ensure the safety and security of all members of the University community during this high profile event. Please take note of the following procedures we are putting in place to maintain a safe and secure campus environment on Monday:

Access to campus will be limited on Monday, at various hours, to Columbia affiliates with a valid University ID card only. All faculty, staff and students must show a University ID to enter the campus.

In addition to the above restrictions, the gates to access campus on 114th Street, at both Carman and John Jay Halls, will be closed during the day. In order to facilitate access to the South Field residence halls, we will open the Taint Gate at 115th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Entry to campus through this gate will also be limited to Columbia affiliates with a valid University ID only.

We also ask for your patience as we extend the University’s amplified sound policy for student groups holding a rally on campus between 11:30am and 6:00pm on Monday.

Thank you for your understanding and cooperation as we continue the work of keeping our campus safe for the many activities of our university community.

Jim McShane
Associate Vice President
For Public Safety


President Bollinger’s Statement About
President Ahmadinejad’s Scheduled Appearance

Sept. 19, 2007

On Monday, September 24, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is scheduled to appear as a speaker on campus. The event is sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs (see SIPA announcement), which has been in contact with the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. The event will be part of the annual World Leaders Forum, the University-wide initiative intended to further Columbia’s longstanding tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues.

In order to have such a University-wide forum, we have insisted that a number of conditions be met, first and foremost that President Ahmadinejad agree to divide his time evenly between delivering remarks and responding to audience questions. I also wanted to be sure the Iranians understood that I would myself introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the president on issues including:

  • the Iranian president’s denial of the Holocaust;
  • his public call for the destruction of the State of Israel;
  • his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;
  • Iran’s pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;
  • his government’s widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women’s rights; and
  • his government’s imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia’s own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh (see President Bollinger’s statement on Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh’s release).

I would like to add a few comments on the principles that underlie this event. Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. To fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.

I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society. 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. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.


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