I was studying at Columbia University in 2007 when it extended an invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Despite Conservative Home suggesting otherwise, the merits of the visit were perfectly plain to me.
I will always remember President Ahmadinejad saying “we do not have homosexuals like you do in your country”. That was a real, clear political dividing line and it struck us all as we poured into the quadrangles in front of the library to watch the proceedings on giant tv screens.
How anyone could suggest that Columbia University somehow was being influenced by these views is plain fantasy, and goes against the facts of the Ahmadinejad visit. I thought Columbia’s President Bollinger was too agressive in his critique of the Iranian regime. Just before he gave the podium to President Ahmadinejad he had called him a “petty and cruel dictator”. He also challenged him on his previous quotes on Israel, the holocaust, homosexuality and women’s rights.
I was then in his law class immediately afterwards, where he justified his forceful attack of the Ahmadinejad by telling us that free speech was a two way dialogue, and that whilst President Ahmadinejad was entitled to instruct us in his views, were were entitled to express our own values.
“That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.” He said this in his address, I am sure most Atlanticists would agree.
As a reporter for the college newspaper I badgered him straight after that class, following him home questioning him on why he refused to shake the Iranian President’s hand, and whether he should have been so critical of the Iranian President. “I did not want to risk blandness, which would have given the wrong message about how dialogue should work,” he told me. He had said in his address that “it is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.”
It’s clear to me, crystal clear, that hearing President Ahmadinejad address me and the assembled throng – from protestors outside the railings to easily influenced undergrads like me on campus, there was merit to hearing him speak. If Columbia received $100,000 funding (piecemeal in comparison to it’s endowment at that time of $6bn) to propagandise on behalf of Iran, it certainly wasn’t obvious on hearing President Bollinger’s introduction to the speech.