University President Lee Bollinger blasted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the Iranian president’s speech yesterday, during which he attacked Western interference with his nation’s policies.
During his remarks, Ahmadinejad clarified and defended his views on the Holocaust, declared that there was no homosexuality in Iran, and denied that his country had ambitions of a nuclear weapons program.
But Bollinger set the tone for the event with his opening remarks, when he drew cheers from the crowd with his statement, “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
Through a translator, Ahmadinejad rebuked Bollinger for his comments, calling them insulting and saying that guest speeches in his nation follow a certain decorum. “In Iran,” he said, “we don’t think it’s necessary before the speech is even given, to come in with a series of claims.”
After a rambling half-hour speech on the power of science and knowledge—and how it can be misused—Ahmadinejad fielded question from students as delivered by John Coatsworth, interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs.
Ahmadinejad spoke out against what he sees as 60 years of injustice for and victimization of the Palestinian people, calling for a free referendum. “We must allow Jewish Palestinians, Christian Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians, to choose their future for themselves,” he said.
During the speech, Ahmadinejad deviated from the usual news reports of his views on the Holocaust and Israel. Responding to a question, he said, “We love all nations. We are friends with Jewish people.” When pressed by Coatsworth, he then refused to give a “yes” or “no” answer on whether he wanted to “wipe Israel off the map,” but brought both topics back to the Palestinian issue.
“I am not saying that it [the Holocaust] did not happen at all. I am saying that—granted this happened—what does this have to do with the Palestinian people?” he asked, saying that Palestinians were displaced to make way for a Jewish state of Israel. He said that just as more research leads to changing perspectives in science, it is also valuable to continue reevaluating and studying historical events, including the Holocaust, saying, “There’s nothing known as absolute.”
Touching on modern international relations, Ahmadinejad condemned what he called the “monopoly of big powers.” He implied that foreign governments spread lies about Iran and denied that the nation suppresses women’s rights. He defended Iran’s laws and its use of execution, saying they are in the people’s best interest, adding, “Don’t you have capital punishment in the United States? You do, too.”
Responding to a question about homosexuality in Iran, Ahmanidejad said, In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” a statement which drew laughter followed by boos.
Aries Dela Cruz, GS ’08 and communications chair of the Columbia Queer Alliance, said after the speech that the question to Ahmadinejad had been poorly phrased.
“The Western category of gay or lesbian doesn’t translate well into Farsi,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that Ahmadinejad didn’t understand the question.”
Regarding his failed attempt to visit Ground Zero, Ahmadinejad said he merely intended to pay respects and wrote off criticism of this wish as a pessimistic, paranoid American mentality.
At several points, Ahmadinejad drew significant applause—much of it coming from seating reserved for his guests—as well as some boos, and a few incredulous laughs. In an interview after the event, Coatsworth expressed his pride in students. “It’s easy to believe in free speech if everybody agrees with you,” he said. “Free speech is meaningless if you don’t hear views that are quite different and even outrageous,” he added.
Hanging over the speech, though, was Bollinger’s incisive introduction where he laid out questions for Ahmadinejad to address.
Addressing Ahmadinejad’s purported denial of the Holocaust, which Bollinger called “the most documented event in human history,” he admonished Ahmadinejad, saying, “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Later, in citing Ahmadinejad’s previous statement that Israel should “be wiped off the map,” Bollinger noted the University’s deep ties to the country, and asked, “Do you plan on wiping us off the map too?” He also rattled off questions about a proxy war in Iraq, human rights abuses, and the creation of nuclear weapons program in Iran.
“I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions,” Bollinger said near the end of his remarks, which he closed by saying, “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 the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.”
Many said they found the comments polarizing and that they lent sympathy to Ahmadinejad.
One SIPA student who would not give her name said Bollinger lacked professionalism, “especially given the fact that he [Ahmadinejad] hadn’t even been given the chance to speak.”
“It made the audience predisposed to sort of sympathize with Ahmadinejad,” she said. “He was actually liked by the audience without uttering a word, and I think that’s where Bollinger lost his ground.”
Some also expressed their disappointment that Bollinger engaged in what they felt were personally attacked Ahmadinejad. Others doubted if the event clearly upheld free speech—the very justification for the event—especially since students could not address Ahmadinejad by themselves.
Bollinger later defended his introduction. “I did not want to risk blandness, which would have given the wrong message about how dialogue should work,” he said in an interview.
Coatsworth said he was ambivalent about the tone Bollinger’s introduction lent to the speech. “I think that it was President Bollinger’s purpose to distinguish between inviting someone to speak and endorsing what the speaker says,” Coatsworth said in an interview following the event. “On the other hand he didn’t respond to most of President Bollinger’s criticisms.”
Those in attendance reacted strongly to the event.
“It’s a question-and-answer session between the guy who would have invited Hitler and Hitler himself,” Jordan Hirsch, CC ’10 and a member of LionPAC, said, expressing anger that there was not an open microphone at the event.
Others said that no comments could change such an obstinate leader’s beliefs.
“It was a huge waste of time, and I think it was a huge mistake that they invited him,” William Nosal, CC ’08 and the treasurer of the College Republicans, said, calling Ahmadinejad’s message propagandistic.
Many charged that Ahmadinejad failed to directly answer questions. While moderating the event, Coatsworth worked to follow up on questions he felt the Iranian president had dodged. “There’s no way to change that genetic code of a politician. My job is to try to come up with questions that will sharpen the point,” Coatsworth said before the speech.
While the campus still buzzes in the aftermath of Ahmandinejad’s appearance, Columbia is left with an informal invitation to Iran. Bollinger also gave an invitation of his own, extending a visiting faculty position to Kian Tajbakhsh, the recently-released Columbia Ph.D. and scholar.
Joshua Chambers, Anastasia Gornick, and Joy Resmovits contributed to this article.
The authors of this story can be reached at email@example.com.