Ahmadinejad: ‘free speech’ as pantomime

The Iranian president's visit to Columbia University was less a blow against censorship and more an exercise in moral posturing.

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Topics Free Speech

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Alex Gourevitch and Alan Miller report from New York on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University.

President Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University on Monday to give a public address in advance of his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly. The speech sparked intense controversy. In the days leading up to the event, television host Bill O’Reilly declared he was ‘tired of free speech’. Neo-conservative editor of The Weekly Standard, William Kristol, moaned about the current leadership at Ivy League universities, declaring that Columbia’s invitation showed ‘a liberal president at his stupidest’ (1). Dani Klein, campus director of the pro-Israel group, compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler and went on to say: ‘We are reminded of a similar situation in 1933, when then Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler hosted a reception for the Nazi ambassador.’

Columbia defended its decision. John Coatsworth, dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and official host to Ahmadinejad, told Fox News: ‘If Hitler were at the League of Nations or some meeting in New York, if Hitler were in the United States, and wanted a platform from which to speak… if he were willing to engage in debate and discussion, to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him.’ (2) On Sunday, the current Columbia president, Lee Bollinger, sent out an email to the university’s community to defend the event: ‘This occasion is not only about the speaker but quite centrally about us – about who we are as a nation and what universities can be in our society.’

The event took place against the backdrop of a long-running debate over free speech and academic freedom. Ahmadinejad had been invited last year, but citing security concerns and amidst widespread protests, Columbia withdrew its invitation. Soon after, the leader of the fringe, anti-immigrant ‘Minutemen’, Jim Gilchrist, came to speak, but student protestors from the International Socialist Organization and the Chicano Caucus rushed the stage, raised signs, and started chanting. One Minuteman supporter attacked the protestors, and mayhem ensued (3). The event quickly became a national media circus, and Columbia’s administration was accused of mishandling the situation.

Columbia has also faced numerous academic freedom controversies. Two years ago, Professor Joseph Massad, a Palestinian academic, was accused of being anti-Semitic, and many called for him to be denied tenure (4). Palestinian historian, Rashid Khalidi, was prevented from speaking to New York City teachers due to his views on Palestine. Most recently, another Palestinian professor, anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, was at the centre of a similar tenure controversy, after she was accused of producing scholarship that attacked Israel (5). Amid these controversies, embattled Bollinger and Coatsworth saw Ahmadinejad’s return to New York as a chance to do two things at once: confront Evil and defend free speech. This is where the problems began.

Before Ahmadinejad’s speech, a coalition of student groups decided to hold a rally on the main campus, drawing a crowd of maybe five hundred students and activists, not to mention a swarm of reporters. Yet amid the media circus, the rally was also legitimately exciting. It was the first time in a long while that politics actually seemed to be occurring on campus.

Those on the rally fell into roughly three groups. The first, who largely seemed to be affiliated with pro-Israel organisations such as Columbia/Barnard Hillel, thought it an outrage that Ahmadinejad be ‘legitimised’ by being given a platform (6). Lauren, a Columbia undergraduate, told us that ‘allowing him to speak made him look more human… and reflects badly on our university.’ The second group seemed to be more generally in favour of free speech, at least in this case, and saw it as an opportunity to clarify the situation in Iran. Sherally Munshi, a graduate student of literature told us that she was ‘fine with anyone coming here… although some of the reaction has been blown out of proportion.’ One of the rally speakers, an Iranian Jew, echoed these concerns; for example, people didn’t seem to realise there was a large population of Jews in Iran, who practised openly and freely. A third group felt the demonisation of Ahmadinejad was just part of American warmongering.

The rally set the scene for Ahmadinejad’s speech. Unfortunately, the audience at the event itself was not quite allowed make its own judgement on the Iranian president. Lee Bollinger’s introductory remarks set a strange tone. He began by saying that Columbia believed strongly in upholding free speech even when ‘we’ find views ‘odious and offensive’. He then stressed that offering a platform to a speaker does not imply ‘an endorsement of those ideas’, and that ‘we do not honour the dishonourable’ when they are ‘allowed to speak’. In defence of free speech, Bollinger also cited the argument, familiar from John Stuart Mill’s famous pamphlet On Liberty, that we value the free exchange of ideas because we feel it is the only path to knowledge and progress.

Bollinger’s remarks suggested that he was uncomfortable with this unadulterated defence of free speech. He felt it necessary to make clear, in none too subtle ways, not only that he didn’t agree with President Ahmadinejad, but that the audience shouldn’t agree with him. According to Bollinger, we were there not so much to listen and think, but to learn a measure of self-restraint in the presence of ‘extremist’ views.

If there was any doubt as to the meaning behind coy references to ‘odious and offensive’ ideas, Bollinger did not cede the stage after his brief comments on free speech. Instead, he turned slightly and began to berate President Ahmadinejad. He trotted out now familiar criticisms of Ahmadinejad’s (somewhat caricatured) views on Israel, the Holocaust, and personal freedom. Bollinger called Ahmadinejad’s views ‘simply ridiculous’, said that Ahmadinejad was ‘brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated’, and ‘preposterous and fanatical’. Bollinger called Ahmadinejad ‘a petty and cruel dictator’, and said the Iranian president ‘lacked the intellectual courage’ to respond to Bollinger’s accusations.

This overheated harangue was an insulting and crude way to treat an invited guest. One can hardly imagine Bollinger took the same stance with the President of Turkmenistan, an ex-Stalinist despot, who runs a country far less free than Iran, and who also spoke at Columbia on Monday; nor has Bollinger ever been reported giving a similar introduction to any of the other authoritarian leaders that have spoken at Columbia.

More to the point, the introductory remarks undermined Bollinger’s claim that the forum was a setting for free speech. The standard of assessment had now been unambiguously set: Ahmadinejad was not a rational person, he was, rather, something closer to Evil Incarnate, an uneducated fanatic, who was being allowed to speak only to prove Columbia’s ‘commitment’ to free speech; he was not to be listened to as an actual interlocutor in a debate. Indeed, the implication of Bollinger’s comments was that, if anyone found Ahmadinejad’s statements and responses reasonable, then those people, too, were somehow uneducated or fanatical.

This was an exceedingly patronising attitude to strike towards the audience. Either Ahmadinejad’s views are transparently absurd and preposterous, in which case no histrionic finger-wagging is required, or they are serious arguments, in which case it is wrong to imply that there is nothing to listen to – unless you believe the audience is so unthinking that it cannot tell the difference.

One consequence of this way of setting up the debate was that it left the door wide open for Ahmadinejad. Quite reasonably, he began his remarks by saying that it was rude to be introduced that way, and that in Iran they ‘respect students to make their own judgments’ and don’t ‘provide vaccination’ before letting someone speak. Undoubtedly, one will be able to find evidence to the contrary, but Bollinger’s tone and remarks allowed Ahmadinejad to look the part of a tolerant, respectful and open-minded politician. Various students suggested that Bollinger gave those prefatory comments to appease the critics, especially conservative donors, who had been against inviting Ahmadinejad at all. However, there is no evidence that Bollinger didn’t believe in what he was saying. Moreover, Bollinger was not alone in adopting a moralistic tone. As the event rolled on, it became clear that this was not really an opportunity to listen and criticise Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad’s speech itself was not particularly noteworthy. He argued that moral knowledge was needed to guide material knowledge, otherwise scientists and scholars would be misused, especially by the powerful, to drop nuclear bombs and start wars. It was a roundabout speech, with a few predictable shots at the (unnamed) Bush administration. He defended Iran’s nuclear policy, saying nuclear bombs were an abomination, mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and US utilisation of depleted uranium in Iraq in his defence.

But it was in the question and answer session that things warmed up again. Selecting written questions from audience members, Dean Coatsworth challenged Ahmadinejad on a variety of subjects. On the Holocaust, the Iranian president stated that he did not deny that it had happened, simply that no matter should be regarded as a closed book. Coatsworth then suggested that the consensus among historians on the matter should be sufficient and no further study was necessary, rather bizarrely undermining the central idea behind academic freedom: nullius in verba – ‘on the word of nobody’. It’s quite possible that Ahmadinejad’s comments were disingenuous, but the moralising line of questioning allowed him to come across as a defender of academic integrity.

In this set-piece between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’, the supposedly evil Ahmadinejad could present himself as thoroughly reasonable in the face of this audience of the ‘good’, which appeared to be close-minded and patronising because it refused to take its opponent seriously. At one point, Ahmadinejad suggested he was defending European scholars who face imprisonment under Holocaust denial statutes. But the ‘good’ side was so intent on tearing off the politician’s mask to expose the hater inside that it didn’t even seem to notice the authoritarian implications of its own questions about scientific consensus and historical research.

Ahmadinejad did express views that were more in keeping with the conservative authoritarian that he is, like arguing women needed to be protected from having a public role or suggesting that there are no homosexuals in his country. It was a pity that, for the most part, little was asked about Iran. This was mainly because the organisers and audience were obsessed with attacking Ahmadinejad, the international hate figure, rather than the reality sat in front of them – a petty and opportunistic authoritarian given far more credibility by the West than he deserves.

Free speech entails more than permitting a speaker to speak. It also requires treating the audience as thinking beings, who can judge right and wrong for themselves. Free speech demands a relationship of seriousness from all sides. Bollinger and Coatsworth repeatedly claimed they were absolutely committed to free speech. But this is not something you can simply tell people, it must be demonstrated.

The more the Columbia hierarchy told people they were defending free speech, the less plausible it sounded, especially in the discursive context they created. In trying to support free speech and defeat ‘evil’, we got little of either.

Alex Gourevitch is a doctoral student in political science at Columbia University, and co-editor of Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations. He is speaking at the session Academic freedom under threat at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Alan Miller is co-director of the New York Salon. He is speaking at the session Change the world – make a documentary? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill wondered why Britain’s foreign secretary was so opposed to Iran having nuclear technology. David Chandler contrasted the UK government’s bombastic attacks on Iran with its relative silence once British sailors were seized by the Iranians. Nathalie Rothschild argued that talk of boycotting Israeli academics was censorship dressed up as radical activism. Dolan Cummings believed free speech is more than just a slogan. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Columbia University: Ahmadinejad Yes, ROTC No, Yahoo News, 20 September 2007

(2) Ahmadinejad Appearance Prompts Criticism of Columbia University Public-Speaking Decisions, Fox News, 24 September 2007

(3) Minuteman mobbed, The BWOG

(4) At the Center of an Academic Storm, a Lesson in Calm, New York Times, 8 April 2005

(5) Fracas Erupts Over Book on Mideast by a Barnard Professor Seeking Tenure, New York Times, 10 September 2007

(6) Columbia Barnard Hillel

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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