The speech given by Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Columbia University on Monday, signified three key topics: first, a remarkable ode to freedom of speech in the University; second, Ahmadinejad's weak performance in addressing some controversial questions; and third, as host and President of Columbia Lee Bollinger's distasteful and humiliating introduction of his guest.
First, Ahmadinejad's invitation to speak at Columbia University signified this country's commitment to freedom of speech: Despite his controversial rhetoric, Ahmadinejad, who is portrayed as one of the least-liked world politicians in the United States, (perhaps up there with Fidel Castro), was officially invited by one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S., to be heard and challenged directly. This extraordinary opportunity allowed students -- perhaps future leaders -- to assess a 'perceived' enemy firsthand.
Despite serious objections to the invitation, the university decided against canceling Ahmadinejad's speech, stating that it based its decision on the fact that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. I believe this is a highly impressive characteristic of the American society, and provides opportunities that many countries, including Iran, simply cannot enjoy.
In a way, inviting Ahmadinejad to New York is like inviting Richard Perle or Michael Bolton to Tehran University to share their views with Iranian students -- an impossible scenario.
Second, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech was a poor performance at best. The portion of his speech which highlighted Iran's stance towards international issues, was realistic, factual and accepted by Iranians and most non-Iranians worldwide (it not Americans)...issues such as criticism of the U.S., relations with Iran in general (regardless of political group or sect), their role in the 1953 coup, and U.S.'s blind support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war; he called for a peaceful nuclear program and peace in the Middle East.
However, the portion of his speech or responses which related to his government's policies or attempted to negate allegations against his government, (and partially aimed at neutralizing Lee Bollinger 's introduction) were contrived, vague, or plain wrong. Examples included his claim about the non-existence of homosexuals in Iran, and the rosy picture he portrayed of the situation of women. Despite his emphasis on 'the value of knowledge and awareness,' he made a great effort to cover up the situation of human rights in Iran.
The third and most surprising aspect of Ahmadinejad's speech, was the very distasteful manner in which Columbia's President Bollinger introduced his guest: "A petty and cruel dictator!" whose "intellectual courage": he doubted in responding to questions that he was "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated." Regardless of political views or pressures from donors to cancel this guest, Bollinger decided to host Ahmadinejad and it was in very poor form to be disrespectful rather than pose his criticism through questions.
Although many Iranians worldwide, and most prominently in Iran, criticize Ahmadinejad for his stance on a wide range of issues, they were very disappointed in Bollinger's insulting and distrustful tone, and poor hospitality. Rather than properly pose his questions, Bollinger simply threw distasteful remarks at Ahmadinejad, without creating an academic dialogue.
Why bother engage him in dialogue if he planned to be so impolite and discourteous? Bollinger is neither the Chief of International Criminal Court, nor a politician to put Ahmadinejad on the stand; he is an academic who was commissioned to create dialogue and promote understanding. His behavior was unjustifiable, and counter-productive to the brave decision by the university against canceling the speech, despite pressures by the donors. One could speculate that Bollinger's behavior was an attempt to alleviate the situation, in response to his critics. However, he reduced himself from a true academic to a politician wannabe, feeding into the increasing tension between the two countries to probably start another war in the region.