Monday, September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad on Campus

These remarks are entirely my own and I do not speak for ACS or the Columbia chapter thereof. I offer my responses to President Ahmadinejad's appearance with the sincere hope that this may be the beginning of a robust discussion here on columbiaacs.blogspot.com.

Today, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke and answered questions here at Columbia upon the invitation to join in the World Leaders' Forum. News vans, police, and passionate discourse all followed him here, and I - for one - cannot imagine a better use of the University's resources and good name.

Ahmadinejad is an indisputable threat to global security of the highest magnitude. He is also a genuinely bad person, a "petty and cruel dictator," in the words of University President Lee Bollinger. I join President Bollinger's condemnation without qualification. Ahmadinejad is, however, undeniably a "world leader," and it is, as noted by President Bollinger, the duty of the academy to host and critically engage with all viewpoints, ridiculous or otherwise.

Deeply embedded in the American conception of free speech is the idea that society benefits from a free trade of ideas in an open and diverse 'marketplace' of thought. It is only when juxtaposed with considered and rational ideas that the absurd and evil are revealed convincingly as such. Ahmadinejad began by dismissing Bollinger's criticisms as impolite as coming from a host, and moved to discuss the importance of scholarship as advancing civilization.

It was tactful of the Iranian President to frame his remarks as focused on the advance of knowledge. By entrenching his discussion in religious scripture, Ahmadinejad implied his fundamental and ultimately problematic thesis: truth is bestowed by God, and my God bestows my truth.

Predictably, Ahmadinejad used this platform as an opportunity to criticize the "big powers" of geopolitics. He pointed to American hypocrisy in preaching freedom abroad while denying privacy to its own citizens. A point well taken. He argued that the West uses science and scholarship to suppress indigenous cultures and the scientific advance of periphery nations, like his own. The intellectual leaders of the West, are divorced from human and cultural values, he argued, and this divorce renders Western science impure and unholy.

Ahmadinejad ended with two questions. First, he asked why more diverse scholarship investigating the Holocaust has not been produced. In a way, he turned President Bollinger's criticism of his government's stance toward the academic community back against the West. In that, he revealed an important and overlooked common ground: we must all observe and respect divergent viewpoints and secure safe spaces for such discourse.

Without phrasing it as a question, Ahmadinejad next asked why Iran should be denied the right enjoyed by other nations to develop a peaceful, civil nuclear program.

To me, Ahmadinejad's visit was an incredible intellectual opportunity and reminded me that the academy, and Columbia in particular, serves as an important and volatile center of international discourse. Ahmadinejad himself comes across as evasive, obfuscating, and an entertainer; ever playing the victim and avoiding any discussion of the magnitude of his inflammatory remarks.

In the end, President Bollinger's scathing introduction seemed, to me, to capture today's event aptly. Ahmadinejad cannot, with reason, refute the malevolence and irrationality of his publicly-expressed views. This is the lesson of the day: all views must be considered, but all must also be supported with reason and evidence. President Ahmadinejad's evasion and selective use of Western ideas are unpersuasive and uselessly polemical.

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