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ahmadinejad plane 224.88.(Photo by: AP)
Humbling Ahmadinejad
Free speech proved just the right antidote to the Iranian leader's rantings.
No matter what else happens in the world, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will always have a place in the headlines. Ever since he was elected Iranian president in 2005 he has captivated the media spotlight. His visit to the UN General Assembly in New York drew even more attention because of his speech Monday before some 800 students at Columbia University. Dean John Coatsworth's foolish statement that he would have invited Hitler himself to speak at the university only intensified the protests and demonstrations, but despite raucous opposition, the event proceeded as planned. The most powerful statements on the day were not spoken by Ahmadinejad himself, but by the president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger. His introduction set the tone for the entire afternoon, and it was an academic and political tour de force. "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," he proclaimed. He attacked Ahmadinejad over his Holocaust denial, his position on Israel, his human rights record and more. Bollinger's assault was merciless: "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated." IN THOSE few moments, the atmosphere and nature of the visit changed. The media had reported that this was a "speech" or "debate," but after Lee Bollinger's introduction, it became a trial. Defendants often engage in tirades and rants, and Ahmadinejad did just that; but he couldn't really transform his podium into a platform of incitement, because he was now speaking as a man indicted. The Iranian president opened by protesting that he was hurt and insulted by the introduction, though he did not address the accusations themselves. He then gave a long sermon about the connection between science and prophecy, spoke out strongly against the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and noted his love for "all people," though he also spoke extensively against Israel. Premeditated or not, this took up most of his speech. Then came the cross examination: student-generated questions on the major issues were posed to the speaker, who attempted to justify himself. TO BE HONEST, I was rather disappointed that Ahmadinejad was not consistently pressured to clarify his statements. This was done once only, and when it was, he became visibly agitated and tried rather unsuccessfully to evade the question. Particularly problematic was the lack of pressure regarding the Holocaust issue. Ahmadinejad, though stating that it was a historical fact, also said repeatedly that its veracity should be questioned. He also claimed that women were treated with perfect respect in Iran. Neither claim was seriously challenged. In this, Columbia failed, but the rest of the event more than compensated for this. Around the half-point of the "trial" came the most stunning moment of the afternoon. When challenged on Iran's persecution of gays, the Iranian president replied, "We don't have gays in Iran. I don't know who told you that… we don't have that phenomenon." The comment was greeted with outright mockery by the students, who jeered and laughed audibly. In that one moment, more conclusively than ever before, Ahmadinejad proved himself to be the "astonishingly uneducated" ignoramus that Bollinger had introduced him as. This proved to be one of the most memorable segments of the trial, and sure enough, most of the headlines regarding the event were along the lines of "Lee Bollinger: Ahmadinejad a 'cruel and petty dictator'" and "Ahmadinejad: 'There are no gays in Iran.'" OVERALL, the negative impact on Israel of the event was minimal. The Iranian president made no new statements on the serious issues; all his comments on Israel and the Holocaust were rehashed from previously publicized speeches. In fact, to my mind, the statements were no worse than those of Norman Finkelstein, Avrum Burg or Illan Pappe. On the other hand, whenever Ahmadinejad deviated from his usual rhetoric he faltered, and this is where the speech was truly influential. Bollinger's indictment, the demand to clarify his position, his comment on gays - in all these he was agitated at best, outright ridiculous at worst. If we ask ourselves what changed in Ahmadinejad's image and influence after his visit to Columbia, I think the answer is unequivocal: He was deservedly humbled. Never before had he been treated like a defendant, and Columbia changed that for good. The event also succeeded as an excellent exhibition of debate, the highest form of free speech. Rather than allow Ahmadinejad to limit his rhetoric to one-sided speeches, Columbia challenged his positions and made him defend himself. The debate bears some comparison to the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy in this regard. Those deliberately offensive caricatures were hailed by many in the Western world on the basis of free speech. But that very justification was being denied to Columbia University. Both were attempts to test the limits of free speech, the former offended over a billion Muslim people; the latter challenged the tolerance of otherwise liberal New York Jews. FINALLY, it should be noted that though Columbia is a prestigious university, Ahmadinejad is the president of some 70 million people. He is used to speaking unchallenged before crowds of thousands or tens of thousands. In Columbia, he was on trial before 800 college students. The situation he was exposed to was demeaning, not empowering. He gained no credibility in this debate; au contraire, the platform forced him to speak not as a powerful president but as just another controversial lecturer. To me, the verdict is clear: Ahmadinejad was defeated, and Columbia won a victory for freedom. The writer is a recent high school graduate from Haifa.
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