Since news broke of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s upcoming speech at Columbia University, student groups on campus have been organizing protests to highlight the Iranian regime’s human-rights violations and belligerency. Correct as our peers are to do this, Columbia’s student leaders have wrongly answered the controversy’s central question: What standards should apply to a university’s decision to give an official invitation to a person such as Ahmadinejad?
In a joint response to the invitation, a number of prominent student leaders wrote that the Ahmadinejad event “presents an incredible opportunity for the student body to learn about world affairs and to challenge a major controversial figure.” They added that “in a University setting no view is too disreputable to be excluded.”
These views echo Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s description of the invitation as an affirmation of academic freedom. Granting that “many, most, or even all of us” find Ahmadinejad “offensive and even odious,” Bollinger wrote this week that to “examine critically all ideas” is “our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world.” In Bollinger’s view, “this is America at its best.”
But Bollinger is begging the question. Certainly the ideas of a powerful world leader should be studied on American campuses. The true question is whether the university should dignify the Iranian leader by making him an officially invited guest.
It is naïve to ignore the uses to which Ahmadinejad will put his invitation. Over the past years, Ahmadinejad’s confrontational rhetoric and policies have resulted in diplomatic isolation and economic hardship for Iran. These developments are unpopular among Iranians. It is beneficial to Ahmadinejad and his regime, then, if he can claim to the Iranian people that his leadership is not hurting their country. If he can demonstrate that he is treated abroad as a respected leader, he will be better able to counter his critics at home. Columbia’s invitation thus gives political assistance to Ahmadinejad.
Bollinger has written that “it should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas…implies our endorsement of those ideas.” That is true. But the argument against the official invitation of Ahmadinejad is not an argument against listening to his ideas. It is an argument against bestowing prestige on Ahmadinejad. There are many ways Columbia can engage with his ideas without giving him the politically valuable respectability of an official speaking invitation. Columbia can hold a forum on his views. It can play recordings of his speeches and ask experts to comment on them. It can create courses on the history and ideology of the Iranian Revolution. Indeed, if “listening to ideas” is truly Bollinger’s goal, then bringing to campus Ahmadinejad, a master of deception and propaganda, should be one of his last options.
The issue here is not free speech. That is a red herring. We have heard no one argue against free speech. The issue is values: What standards should Columbia use in giving out valuable, prestigious official speaking invitations? Whatever standards apply, they should preclude an invitation to the head of a regime that behaves as Iran’s does and they should in particular preclude an invitation to an individual who promotes hatred and violence as Ahmadinejad does.
Ahmadinejad’s regime punishes homosexuality by hanging and stoning gays. Religious minorities — Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Jews, and others — are routinely abused by the Islamic police. Women are publicly flogged for not dressing according to regime edict. Academics and students survive in the academy only so long as the regime decides not to purge them as “infidels.” And Ahmadinejad has made repeated calls for Israel’s destruction, fantasizing about mass murder while developing the weapons necessary for achieving his fantasy.
Iran is the world’s leading exporter of terrorism. It founded and supports Hezbollah, a terrorist group which is undermining Lebanon, seeks to destroy Israel, and killed nearly 300 American Marines in 1983. In fact, the American death toll at the hands of Iranian terrorism increases daily, as U.S. troops in Iraq are killed and maimed by Iranian-provided improvised explosive devices. Amazingly, American soldiers may be killed by Iranian bombs at the very moment that Ahmadinejad is being hosted by Columbia — and in the name of American ideals, no less.
Columbia properly considers free speech its ultimate value. Universities should not try to shield students from controversial views or be fearful of any ideas. But this is beside the point. By its invitation, Columbia has chosen to give Ahmadinejad a valuable political gift that he does not deserve, and that he will use to further repress his people and threaten his neighbors. It is shameful to receive him here as an official guest.
– David J. Feith and Jordan C. Hirsch are undergraduates at Columbia University. They are editors of The Current, a journal of politics, culture and Jewish affairs.