CBC News: Political lessons – Iranian leader’s speech sparks hot debate at Columbia
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October 1, 2007


Political lessons – Iranian leader’s speech sparks hot debate at Columbia

Sept. 25, 2007

By Omar Soliman

Students gather at Columbia university to hear Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Omar Soliman)

Student politics have not been this animated since 1968.

Thousands of demonstrators and activists assembled in and around the heavily guarded streets at Columbia University yesterday while controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed a jam-packed room of more than 600 students and faculty.

A media frenzy ensued as outlets from across North America and Europe descended on the scenic Morningside Heights campus of this Ivy League university to cover the event.

Across campus, which was only accessible to students and staff, fierce debate took place over the limits to free speech and the evolving geopolitical situation in the Middle East.

Outside the campus gates, Steven Gruber, 51, an alumnus of the university’s graduate school of international affairs, protested the event by offering to sell his Columbia Masters certificate for 50 cents.

“I went here, but my children won’t,” he said. “My father is a graduate of this school, and he passed away. I am going to return his degree posthumously. They have diminished the value of this diploma.”

Members of a group calling itself the Zionist Organization of America held banners that read “Save Israel” and “Ashamed to be Alumni.” In their midst were community activists carrying banners that featured the face of U.S. President George W. Bush over an image of a mushroom cloud, with the words “Who is the real nuclear threat?”

Students were similarly divided on the Iranian leader’s visit.

Neema Karimi, 24, an Iranian-American student at City College of New York, disagreed with what he feels Ahmadinejad represents, but passionately defended Columbia’s decision to give the Iranian leader a platform. “Better we argue with words than with bombs,” he said.

Several Iranian students draped themselves in their national flag and were joined by left-leaning campus groups in sounding a lively chorus of “Ahmadinejad bad; Bush worse.”

A podium was set up on the steps of Low Memorial Library for student leaders to freely address the crowd before and after the speech, creating a scene reminiscent of the atmosphere that characterized Columbia’s historic antiwar protests of the 1960s.

Andrew Tillet-Saks, 20, a history and sociology major, spoke on behalf of Lucha, a Latino student activist organization. “We empathize and stand in solidarity with the sections of oppressed Iranian peoples, but we are not naive to the fact that they must struggle and liberate themselves,” he said.

The decision to have Ahmadinejad participate in the annual World Leaders Forum at Columbia University was heavily criticized by New York City newspapers, politicians, and Jewish groups.

Last year, Columbia was condemned by campus groups and faculty for allowing Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, an anti-immigration group, to address a group of College Republicans. Minutes into his speech, Gilchrist was interrupted on stage and the event was cut short.

Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger, a scholar of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which lays out the right to freedom of speech, stood firm against pressure to cancel the event, and instead promised tough questions for the Iranian leader.

Bollinger’s introductory remarks amounted to a vicious rebuke of the Iranian leader.

“Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” said Bollinger, to loud applause. “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

Bollinger challenged the Iranian leader to explain his denial of the Holocaust, his call for the destruction of the state of Israel, his role in funding Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents, and his true intentions regarding uranium enrichment. “I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions,” Bollinger said.

Ahmadinejad responded by suggesting that Bollinger’s opening statement was replete with inaccuracies, and that, as a fellow academic and guest of the university, it was not appropriate to level insults.

He denied ever having suggested that the Holocaust did not occur, but instead challenged academics to continue tackling the “facts.” “Why is it not open to all forms of research? … Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying for an event they had nothing to do with?” he said, to sporadic “boos” from the audience.

On the question of Iran’s proposed nuclear program, Ahmadinejad argued that his country was in full compliance with the standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency. When asked why he wouldn’t allow American oversight of the nuclear program, he responded, “If you have trouble giving us spare parts for civilian aircraft, what is the expectation that you’ll give us fuel for nuclear development?”

Many students felt that Bollinger’s opening remarks were too harsh for a visiting foreign dignitary. “Remember that Columbia University initiated the invitation. How can they then turn around and insult him like that?” said Mike Hunter, 37, a local resident and graduate student at the university.

“[Bollinger] first alienated the Jewish groups and the right by inviting the man to speak, and then proceeded to alienate the supporters of the event on the left by so heavily insulting the guy,” he said.

“I think we all just wasted a day at Columbia,” said journalism Prof. Ari Goldman, a former religion reporter at the New York Times and author of The Search for God at Harvard. “I was opposed to this invitation from the beginning,” he added.

“I think it’s going to hurt the school in terms of fundraising, I think it’s going to hurt the school in terms of reputation, and I really don’t see anything positive about it.”


Omar Soliman is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City. He has previously worked for Warren Kinsella at the Daisy Consulting Group in Toronto and is currently completing an internship with the CBC United Nations Bureau.

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