When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived at Columbia University Monday, our fellow Ivy Leaguers found themselves in the middle of a political whirlwind. Republican senators strolled onto Fox News sets with chests puffed out, vowing to retaliate to the speech by depriving Columbia of federal funds. The air-headed pinups doubling as midday anchorwomen on CNN blankly asked mysteriously chosen Columbia students whether this was “free speech” or a “forum for hate,” seemingly ignorant to the fact that the two aren’t exactly diametrically opposed. On the streets of New York, protesters waved around colorful signs and made some noise, and one Columbia grad with a bullhorn even went so far as to rip up her diploma—a profound display of symbolism. Even the president of the university, Lee C. Bollinger, couldn’t help smacking around the scruffy little Holocaust-denier, saying that the Iranian president has exhibited the traits of a, “petty and cruel dictator.” An interesting insult since the democratically elected Ahmadinejad isn’t even the most powerful man in Tehran—that distinction going to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Bollinger’s factually bankrupt insult underscores the reality of our misunderstanding of Iran and serves as the impetus for the necessity of letting Ahmadinejad speak in America—that we have never heard the man speak for himself. We’ve heard that he wants to acquire nukes; we’ve heard he dismissed the Holocaust as a “myth;” we’ve heard he vowed for the destruction of Israel, but have we ever actually heard it from him? Yes media, I know you think the guy is a terroristic madman—Pinky to the Ayatollah’s Brain—but can I have a listen and decide for myself please? I certainly have a good amount of trust in the mainstream media, but whenever possible I’d prefer to hear it from the primary source. The question and answer session at Columbia finally let us listen to his ideas and not what the media tell us are his ideas.
After watching the Q&A section of his Columbia visit, I get the overriding sense that Ahmadinejad is not as crazy as he’s made out to be. Granted no one can argue that the guy isn’t psycho, but he’s not the raving, murderous madman that he’s made out to be. I was expecting a podium-slamming Iranian endlessly praising Allah, but I ended up with squirrelly, bearded Iranian making irrational claims in a calm, rational argumentative style. He’s not a demented megalomaniac as much as he is a delusional academic who has been cultured into defending seemingly indefensible stands.
Ahmadinejad’s speech was characterized by two distinct realms of rationality, the first of which being the realm of the rational. Surprisingly, a lot of the stuff he said made a lot of sense. For example, the Iranian president’s argument concerning Iran’s nuclear program was especially concise. He first reiterated his claim that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and then cited a report from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) that concluded that Iran’s program indeed shows no indication of military intent. He went on to denounce all use of nuclear weapons, dismissing them as a detriment to humanity.
I also applaud Ahmadinejad for fighting back at Bollinger’s remarks. The whole point of inviting a foreign leader to your college is to hear what he has to say. Don’t dismiss the speaker before he even has a chance to state his case. If you want to challenge Ahmadinejad for his views, then do so during the question and answer section, not during a fiery publicity stunt of an introduction.
When asked if he supports diplomatic relations with the United States, Ahmadinejad slipped into a platitudinous ramble about questioning the world order and the need for both mutual respect and diplomatic discourse. It concluded with him basically saying that the Iranian government has always been for diplomatic ties with the United States, but the US refuses to come to the table. Ahmadinejad even reiterated his desire to publicly debate Bush on international issues on the floor of the United Nations (in contradiction to his cowboy-up nature Bush declined—an embarrassing admission that the leader of the free world would actually lose a debate to a guy who’s convinced that there are no homosexuals in Iran).
Now, without further ado, we turn to the realm of the irrational, which encompassed the majority of Ahmadinejad’s question and answer session. As levelheaded as his arguments concerning nuclear power were, his ideas about the Holocaust and homosexuality—actually the existence of homosexuality—serve as direct evidence to his lunacy.
In justification for his calls for more research into the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad made an analogy. Since we already know a lot about physics and research persists, he argues that we must continue to research the Holocaust. When asked about that obvious implication of this research—that he is trying to discredit the Holocaust in order to discredit Jews (who have been victims of murders carried about by the Iranian funded terrorist group Hezbollah)—the president refused a direct answer and began rambling about the pursuit of knowledge.
After the incredibly awkward justification for his views on the Holocaust, I thought the session had reached a highpoint of ridiculousness. But how I was wrong. Ahmadinejad’s answer to a question concerning the mistreatment of women and the execution of homosexuals brought his rhetoric to a new height of absurdity.
Concerning women, the president responded, “Maybe you think it is a crime to be a woman. It is not a crime to be a woman.” The structure of this statement is meant to imply either profoundness or a legitimate inquiry into our position on female legality. He’s either trying too hard to prove there is gender equality in Iran, or he is suggesting the possibility that Americans have doubts about whether having a vagina is a crime. I’d argue for the former, which is further evidenced by his statement that, “Every Iranian family with a girl is ten times happier [than families without a girl].” He later continued, “Women are more respected than men are.” These statements indicate that, contrary to our view of Middle Eastern women as oppressed, Iranian woman are actually superior to Iranian men. Really Mahmoud? Ten times happier? Are men seen as inferior savages who have no place in the public eye? Perhaps we should ask a follow up question— namely, why are Iranian men not treated as equals in Iranian society?
Ahmadinejad’s comments about homosexuality in Iran, or a claimed lack there of, take bigotry to a whole new level. Instead of dismissing homosexuals as dogs or pigs or some type of farm animal in the typical Islamic extremist fashion, the president dismisses the existence of homosexuals. He claims, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country…We do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” Though many of them have been executed for other “crimes,” it’s hard to imagine there are zero homosexuals in Iran. I’m pretty sure it’s a genetic impossibility.
But I think it’s a really constructive way of thinking that Ahmadinejad is taking up. Outright denial of anything you dislike is definitely the way to go. How did that meeting in Tehran go? Was there a group of government leaders huddled around a table saying stuff like, “Hey I don’t like these gays, we should do something about that…I’ve got an idea—gays don’t exist. Problem solved. Let’s break for lunch I’m starving.”
The audience at Columbia laughed at the proclamation that homosexuals don’t exist in Iran. It’s not everyday that a perceived militant lunatic gets laughed at by hundreds of people for saying something completely idiotic. And this is in essence of my rationale for letting Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia. We needed to see the man in the flesh. Enough with the reports and the five-second sound bites; let us hear his ideas in his own words. When his own words spilled from his mouth over the half hour question and answer session, we learned something we wouldn’t have learned if he didn’t speak at Columbia. We learned that this man is not a tyrannical maniac wielding all kinds of military power and political influence but rather that he is a rambling demagogue whose loaded irrational rhetoric should be laughed at, not feared.