Ahmadinejad at Columbia

The “introduction” that Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger gave the leader of Iran after the university had invited him to speak there has attracted much attention. Writing in the Nation, Jayati Vora says:

In his statement, combative and unduly vicious, Bollinger accused his invited guest of being nothing more than a “petty and cruel dictator,” of having a “fanatical mindset.” He claimed that this exercise was valuable in knowing one’s enemies and understanding “the mind of evil.”

It was an extraordinarily rude display by the Columbia president. If you invite someone, anyone, to speak, it is because you feel that he or she has something to say that is worth listening to, even if you do not agree. The very minimal courtesy that one should extend is to listen to that person and afterwards, if you disagree, to point out the points of disagreement. It was left to Ahmadinejad to teach Bollinger proper manners when he said in his remarks “In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them.”

To give a preemptive insulting tongue-lashing full of name-calling to an invited guest is a sign of boorishness, unworthy of anyone let alone the president of a prestigious university. It is almost a universal principle of hospitality that one never insults a guest in one’s home. Columbia University and the US were diminished by Bollinger’s actions. The people who have been desperately trying to demonize Iran as a prelude to starting yet another war might have cheered his actions, and Bollinger’s words reveal the extent to which he wants to curry favor with that latter group.

Bollinger also said, remarkably, that he doubted that Ahmadeinejad had the “intellectual courage” to answer his questions. This was despite the fact that Ahmadinejad had agreed to appear before an unscreened audience in a country in which he has been demonized and which is in the process of being whipped up into a frenzy to attack his own. He was even willing to take questions from an audience which he had to know would be hostile to him, in a public place in full view of the media, a sign that he was willing to be confronted in the normal rough-and-tumble of political discourse.

In this respect Ahmadinejad showed far more “intellectual courage” than either Bush or Cheney who in their own country never speak anywhere unless there are no questions or without a carefully screened audience that has been prompted to either praise them effusively or ask softball questions. Even people who demonstrate and protest or wear t-shirts with antiwar or anti-Bush messages are either arrested or not allowed within sight of Bush or Cheney, as if they would faint at the sight, like the clichéd Victorian women when someone says “damn” or “hell” in their presence. How would Bollinger describe Bush and Cheney, I wonder? Would he have the “intellectual courage” to ask them tough questions or say what he thinks of them?

But we don’t have to speculate about how Bollinger might act. His willingness to follow the official party line was seen when he hosted Pakistani President Musharraf, a strong Bush ally, in 2005. This is how Bollinger introduced him:

Rarely do we have an opportunity such as this to greet a figure of such central and global importance. It is with great gratitude and excitement that I welcome President Musharraf and his wife, Sehbah Musharraf, to Columbia University. . . President Musharraf is a leader of global importance and his contribution to Pakistan’s economic turnaround and the international fight against terror remain remarkable – it is rare that we have a leader of his stature at campus,”

Who is this person of such “stature”? This is how the BBC profiles him:

General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 which was widely condemned and which led to Pakistan’s suspension from the Commonwealth until 2004. . . In 2002 General Musharraf awarded himself another five years as president, together with the power to dismiss an elected parliament. The handover from military to civilian rule came with parliamentary elections in November 2002, and the appointment of a civilian prime minister.

General Musharraf has retained his military role, reneging on a promise to give up his army post and to become a civilian president.

Its pretty clear that it is Musharraf who is an unsavory military dictator, someone who has no time for democracy and ruthlessly arranges the murder of people who cross him, while Ahmadinejad is actually an elected president. Yet Bollinger referred to the former as a “leader” and the latter as a “dictator”.

Vora was also at that earlier event:

On each of our seats was a pamphlet with a brief history of the leader. I was astonished to find that, according to his biography, Musharraf “assumed the office of chief executive of Pakistan in October 1999.” There was no mention of the coup through which Musharraf seized power. Not once did Bollinger refer to the military man, who had overthrown the elected government and then refused to hold elections as promised, as a dictator–a word he seemed to have no problem using to describe Ahmadinejad. The question of how Musharraf “assumed office” was delicately avoided, a diplomatic skill that has clearly been forgotten in these two intervening years. No one seemed curious to know how Musharraf’s rhetoric about democracy fit in with his continued reign as a dictator–at least, no one with access to a mike.

In fact, it was the audience questions at Columbia that exposed the weakness of the Iranian leader. When he responded to a question by saying that Iran had no homosexuals, he revealed his extreme homophobia to the world. Bollinger would have been well-advised to have merely given a pro-forma introduction and let the questioners take the lead in showing Ahmadinejad’s weaknesses. Bollinger’s attacks only strengthened Ahmadinejad’s image at home and abroad, and increased the perception that Americans are uncouth and uncivilized and do not practice the basic elements of courtesy.

Jon Stewart has the correct attitude to Bollinger’s remarks. In fact, Bollinger could learn a lot from Stewart about how to treat guests. Stewart interviewed Musharraf a year or so ago and then President Evo Morales of Bolivia just last week. He treated them pretty much the same although Musharraf is a ruthless military dictator determined to hold on to power while Morales is the first person of indigenous origins to be elected to the highest office in his country in Latin America and has pushed through sweeping reforms to benefit the poor of that country. ((By the way, note the amazing skill of Morales’ simultaneous translator who is able to listen to new words while speaking the translated words that he had heard a few seconds earlier.)

As a footnote, it should be noted that Ahmadinejad also had a cordial meeting with a group of rabbis in New York and visited Bolivia and Venezuela after leaving the US, where he was warmly greeted in both countries.

POST SCRIPT: Please leave them alone!

What do Britney Spears and General David Petraeus have in common? Both have had “fan” videos protesting the way they have been treated.

Here’s the Britney fan video:

And here’s the Petraeus “fan” video:

Of course, the “Leave General Petraeus alone” video is a parody of the other. I originally thought that the Spears video was a piece of theater or performance art, but it seems that it represents the real feelings of a true fan called Chris Crocker.


  1. dave says

    I don’t think Bollinger’s comments were politically motivated. Rather, I think the introduction was written after the row caused by the invitation itself. It was Bollinger’s way of saving his, and Columbia’s, face.

  2. says

    Perhaps Bollinger felt he had to safe face, but the insults, made it worse. Instead he could have used the introduction as a teaching moment, explaining that by interacting with people of differing beliefs we can hope to understand their perspective, bridge the gaps and find common ground.

    In a time when guest speakers seem to be causing more and more controversy and protest, it would have been prudent for Bollinger to respect the speaker and take a hard line with the audience by explaining that universities are a place where speakers from all sides are invited so that we can explore the differences.

    We don’t have to attend every lecture on campus, whether we agree with the speaker or not, but the campus is one of the few places where one has the opportunity to see such speakers.

    If we seek to work with and/or change those with whom we disagree, we must also seek to understand their reasoning and perspective. Those who were able to attend Ahmadeinejad’s talk and ask questions afterwards were given the chance to do exactly that.

  3. Thought Shaman says

    We learn more from people with whom we disagree. Bollinger’s introduction was intellectually dishonest and lacked courtesy.

    Ahmedijinad is an elected leader and we ought to respect his right to hold his views even if they are authoritarian, destructive, and intellectually dishonest. It is our right to point out where we disagree, and at the very least seek to understand his motives.

    I have no idea why Bollinger chose to “save face” instead of positing that freedom of expression is part of our values, and we are willing to listen to, and question anyone.

  4. says

    It occurs to me also that to properly “save face” for oneself, one must also create a situation in which others can “save face” as well. By insulting Ahmadeinejad, Bollinger failed the latter principle.

  5. says

    “How would Bollinger describe Bush and Cheney, I wonder?” I would like to answer this question and I think the same answer that chavez will make. (don..)

  6. James Chang says

    We could have just disinvited Ahmadeinejad, and have Bollinger pretend to be the host and target at the same time.

    Besides, the Iranian president did not really answer the questions Bollinger posed in his introductory remarks.

    As such, he played the politician, refusing to answer the question on whether he wanted Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. He even lauded the rights of woman even though the facts tell us otherwise. His homophobic answer to the gay question was quite a shocker.

    I also wondered if his answers were scripted. From time to time, one of his aides would place a note on the podium, and you can see Ahmadinejad’s eyes glance down a few times.

  7. says

    Muslims Against Sharia condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the decision of Columbia University to provide a speaking venue for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Apparently letting Akbar Rafsanjani speak at the National Cathedral was not the height of American Dhimmitude, because providing a venue for the world’s foremost anti-Semite, whose proclaimed goal is the destruction of the USA and Israel, definitely takes the cake. What is surprising is that we don’t hear any complaints from Columbia alumni who should be ashamed of their silence.

    More on the subject:
    1. Why Does Columbia host Ahmadinejad?
    2. Absolutely The Most Brilliant Commentary on Ahmadinejad & Columbia (R-rated language)

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