When it was first publicized that the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was coming to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly and wished to make a stop at Ground Zero to lay a wreath to "pay his respects to the victims of the 9/11 tragedy," most of America was appalled. How could he, a terrorist-sponsoring leader of a country we've been less than friendly with for over 20 years, have the audacity to say he wants to "pay his respects" to the victims of such a tragic event, still a sensitive memory to the American people? To the relief of most, both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NY Police Department refused to comply with Ahmadinejad's request, citing security risks and the betrayal of sacred grounds as their reasoning.
Then, it came to light that Columbia University invited Ahmadinejad to speak- an invitation he readily accepted. I was shocked at first that an Ivy League school would offer a platform for a leader who not only sponsors terrorism, but is guilty of enforcing a number of other sickening policies.
Ahmadinejad holds the belief that the Holocaust is a myth, and has expressed his wish to completely obliterate Israel off the map. He has also imposed a law that sentences Iranian homosexuals to death. In addition, he has implemented what can be referred to as gender apartheid.
Many argued that it was essential to allow for freedom of speech in dialogue between someone with radically different views than those of most Americans. They believed it would be beneficial to spark an open debate by challenging Ahmadinejad's policies. Others thought it was outrageous that Columbia would offer a leader so deranged and corrupt a platform to speak - something that puzzled me as well.
As I watched Ahmadinejad address and take questions from the faculty at Columbia, not much was done to ease my puzzlement. In fact, I became even more skeptical of the University's decision to invite him to speak when I sensed that the whole thing was one (or both) of two things - a hunger for controversy and media attention on the University's part, or an event aimed at mocking Ahmadinejad, neither of which match the supposed intent of the address.
The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, commenced the discussion, "welcoming" Ahmadinejad by saying that he "exhibits all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." Bollinger also informed Ahmadinejad that he would be harshly challenged on his policies and beliefs, and made clear that he "questioned his intellectual courage" to respond to them.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, little was accomplished by the widely publicized, highly controversial "forum." Ahmadinejad did little to justify, explain or enlighten - he simply shared his deranged beliefs. I don't think he was enlightened much by the "challenges" posed by Columbia students and faculty either, as he skirted around most, if not all of the questions he was asked. At most, he rephrased some of his beliefs.
As an example of his deranged beliefs, rather than denying its existence completely he stated that the Holocaust needed to be researched more. Instead of addressing his comments on wishing to destroy Israel, he made statements about looking out for the interest of the Palestinian people. He also stated that women in Iran are more respected than men
But perhaps the most enlightening part of his address was this little known "fact," which I will quote directly. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have that." Well, at least he got a few laughs.