Why you should care about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Columbia speech

    Photo by Daniella Zalcman on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    It’s been a rough couple of weeks for speakers on college campuses. First, John Kerry had a question and answer session at the University of Florida interrupted when a student was tasered. Then on Monday, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was introduced with a ten-minute attack before his controversial speech at Columbia University. All in all, it makes you thankful that at least the Lifehouse concert was peaceful.

    The Ahmadinejad speech was particularly interesting since it’s rare that a figure so hated gets invited to speak at a college. He’s been a virulent critic of America, which has gotten him lots of praise in Iran but made him unpopular here. Being a Holocaust denier also hasn’t helped his popularity in the West. At home, he’s lobbied strongly against the state of Israel, saying it’s founded on discrimination and that it should be relocated to, say, Alaska.

    His trip to New York to address the United Nations was already under a great deal of scrutiny, especially when he asked to visit Ground Zero and meet with families of 9/11 victims (he was denied). But everything really hit the fan when he accepted an invitation to speak at Columbia as part of the school’s World Leaders Forum. Protests mounted against the school, and state and city legislators even said they were considering withholding public funds from the school.

    University president Lee Bollinger took it all in stride, saying that he only brought Ahmadinejad to create a forum to discuss controversial ideas. John Coatsworth, the acting dean of the school of International and Public Affairs and sponsor of the forum, stirred the pot even more by saying he would have invited Hitler to speak in the 1930s. Despite all the protests, the speech went on as planned although not without its own bit of controversy. Bollinger opened the speech with a blistering diatribe against Ahmadinejad, calling him a “petty and cruel dictator” and challenging his views on the Holocaust.

    Columbia junior Lauri Feldman attended the talk and said that Bollinger’s opening was warmly received, although people were surprised by his comments.

    “Watching Bollinger denounce Ahmadinejad was shocking… He had trouble getting through the speech because of all the applause,” she said. “Seeing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was actually less shocking.”

    Ahmadinejad’s speech itself wasn’t so exciting – Feldman said Ahmadinejad mostly rambled about science and religion to the disappointment of the crowd. But a question and answer period did bring some of the expected controversy. He denied that there were homosexuals in Iran, saying that anyone who thought otherwise was being fed false information. He also reiterated his beliefs about Israel and the Holocaust.

    Feldman said that the atmosphere on campus was tense before the speech, but that there was also a lot of discussion, just as Bollinger had anticipated.

    “There were some major issues of free speech and human rights,” she said. “This was an academic challenge not just at the event, but also leading up to the event.”

    Although there will always be naysayers, the opportunity to speak directly to such a controversial figure about some difficult ideas can’t be topped. It would be impossible to understand how a person like that thinks without hearing it from his mouth. Columbia students got a unique learning experience that is surprisingly rare for colleges these days.

    Just consider Northwestern: When engineering professor Arthur Butz praised Ahmadinejad for publicly denying the Holocaust, the administration took measures to keep him quiet rather than creating a forum for him to speak to students directly.

    The buildup to the Ahmadinejad speech was probably enough to deter a university president from inviting such a controversial figure to speak in the future, especially if the school’s public funds are threatened. But really, is it so bad to hear a dictator speak? Students would clamor at the opportunity to speak with Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, two personae non gratae in the United States but newsworthy personalities nonetheless.

    The idea behind the event wasn’t to let Ahmadinejad try to convert students to his beliefs (although Bollinger did warn that ignorant listeners could be persuaded), but to let students objectively hear them and challenge them. Slate magazine argued that the appearance was really just an exercise in gall for the dictator but even still, it gave students the chance to listen to him.

    The success of the forum (hey, at least nobody got tasered) should serve as an example for universities across the country. Some of the most memorable parts of college are listening to famous people share their ideas, and they’re only more impressive if the speaker is someone as controversial and important as Ahmadinejad. Besides educating students, they can also serve to open new channels of dialogue.

    After the speech, Bollinger announced that he was working with Iranian officials to form a delegation of Columbia students to visit some universities in Iran to create more discussion between the countries. Just imagine the academic challenges that would come from studying in Iran rather than, say, Qatar. Whatever the results, controversial speakers should start popping up on more campuses. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to tell your kids that you once questioned one of the world’s most infamous dictators.


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