September 25, 2007

Columbia U. President Fires Questions at Iranian Leader

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NEW YORK — The press release issued by Columbia University introducing speakers for the Annual World Leaders Forum mentioned seven leaders, but made no mention of the man whose invitation and presence yesterday at the university incited widespread protest and demanded the attention of most major media outlets in the country, and in the world — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Many present on campus for the talk yesterday said that the intention of the university in inviting Ahmadinejad to speak was unclear. The ambiguity also brought into question the extent of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Bollinger addressed the ambiguity regarding the Columbia’s intention on inviting Ahmadinejad in his first words.
“If today proves anything, it will be that there is an enormous amount of work ahead of us,” he said.
Bollinger then began to address concerns outlined by many groups, listing examples of repression of human rights activists, and quoting death tolls, stating that Iran “leads the world in executing minors.”
“You exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” Bollinger said to cheers from the audience, “and so I ask you, why have women, members of the Bahai faith, and homosexuals, and the academic, come under persecution? Why are you so afraid?”
Bollinger also said that Iran funds and harbors terrorists. He asked Ahmadinejad, “Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations? Can you tell them and [victims and families of victims] why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq?”
Ahmadinejad replied that Iran itself is a victim of terrorism.
“We need to address the root causes of terrorism,” he said. “We live in the middle east, for us it’s quite clear what powers support terrorists. We don’t need to resort to terrorism, we are victims ourselves. It is regrettable that instead of supporting the people of Iran, they turn the finger to us.”
Bollinger’s speech was permeated by applause and cheers from the audience, which seemed to express surprise at his “hard-line” approach.
“Frankly, and in all candor, I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions, but your avoidance will be answer enough to us,” he said to Ahmadinejad. “With all the many goodhearted intelligent citizens [in Iran], may this do that and more. I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world, yearning to express their revulsion … I only wish I could do better.”
Ahmadinejad began with gratitude, but immediately addressed Bollinger’s opening statements.
“At the outset I want to complain a bit from the person who read this political statement against me. Tradition requires a person to respect a speaker,” he spoke in Farsi, with the words translated into English. “We actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment. The text read by the dear gentleman was an insult of information and an insult to the audience present here.”
Ahmadinejad said his motivations for accepting Columbia’s invitation was a desire to speak about the importance of knowledge and information of education, describing scholars as “flying torches to shed light on the ambiguities around us.”
He was also asked directly, “Do you or your government seek the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state?”
Ahmadinejad’s answer was ambiguous. He stated, “We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people.”
When the moderator encouraged a more direct answer to the yes or no question, he replied, “You want the answer the way you want to hear it. This is not a free floor of information.”
Another question referenced the discrimination and persecution of women and homosexuals in Iran.
“Freedoms in Iran are genuine true freedoms,” he said, “Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom.”
In regards to the right of homosexuals, Ahmadinejad gave his shortest response of the talk.
“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he said to a chorus of boos and laughter from the audience. “We do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who told you that we have it.”
He answered the question of whether Iran will participate in future dialogue also with the United States, saying, “We don’t need threats, we don’t need to point bombs or guns. I am ready to engage in a debate with Mr. Bush about critical international issues, we want to talk, having a debate before the world, so that the truth is revealed, so that we can find a clear path.”
Gila Hook, a Columbia senior, watched the talk from the lawn.
“Bollinger’s speech was great,” she said. “I listened to Ahmadinejad for two minutes and then I left.”
“There’s free speech, and then there’s inviting criminals to speak. I think it’s clear he’s not interested in dialogue,” she added.
An international Columbia student requested to remain anonymous, saying, “I am a student, not a citizen. It is much safer.”
She believed that Ahmadinejad made crucial points about Iran suffering from acts of terrorism, and Iran’s desire to be a peaceful nation.
In regards to the appropriateness of Bollinger’s harsh commentary against the Iranian president, she said, “I think as Persians say, if you invite someone you respect them. You don’t need to take a class to understand insult.”
Yet, she expressed optimism for the future relationship of Iran and the United States.
“The path is infinitely open for positive results,” she said.
John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, moderated the talk; SIPA sponsored the event as part of the initiation of a year-long series of lectures and events on 30 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran.