Ahmadinejad's Speech at Columbia University Is as American as Apple Pie
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Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, in condemning Columbia's invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stated that he's tired of free speech. Ironically, in doing so, he exercised that specific freedom, a privilege that allows critical engagement with elected officials and forces them to defend their actions. He used a right that the people of Iran do not enjoy.
Unlike Americans, who are able to challenge the legitimacy of the Patriot Act or take issue with America's continued presence in Iraq, Iranians cannot question Ahmadinejad's nuclear program or theocratic laws. Due to government control of most major media outlets as well as the threat of imprisonment for dissent, they are forced to accept these policies. This lack of freedom of speech gives Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei both a bully pulpit and immunity from accounting for policies.
It is for this reason that Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University on Monday is so vital. He will be challenged by students who will exercise their right to free speech in the way that their counterparts in Iran cannot. They will question his absurd ideological views that the Holocaust never occurred and that Israel should be wiped off the planet. They will force him to account for Iran's burgeoning nuclear program, interference with American efforts in Iraq, and ongoing support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Most importantly, they will be given the opportunity to impugn Ahmadinejad's abhorrent oppression of the Iranian people, disputing the rationality of Iran's misogynist, homophobic and other malicious laws. In short, Columbia students will get to demand answers to questions that the Iranians cannot so much as utter publicly.
Moreover, Columbia's invitation to Ahmadinejad not only shows the world the importance of free speech, but also demonstrates what free speech means. Free speech does not simply allow individuals to express their views. It also forces them to defend and validate those views.
Those who oppose Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia argue that we are giving him a soapbox. Ahmadinejad is clearly not challenged for venues in which he can promote his twisted ideology. His ability to spread his heinous views is evidenced by the fact that Americans are well aware of these positions. If we didn't let him speak here, he could just as easily spread hate from Iran. The difference in bringing him to Columbia is that we will have the opportunity to challenge his claims, whereas we can only cringe when he speaks from Iran. What Columbia has chosen to do is to put him in a context where he cannot take advantage of the bully pulpit, where he must defend his actions to students and academics, where, for once, he is in a conversation rather than a monologue.
There are concerns that the invitation confers on him some degree of legitimacy. But when a man can menace Israel and the United States in the Middle East and keep the world on edge with threats of nuclear proliferation, he is already a legitimate force in global politics. Columbia's invitation does not provide further recognition. Instead, by creating a critical dialogue, it challenges the authenticity of Ahmadinejad's ideology. Columbia President Lee Bollinger's statement makes it clear that the event will be divided evenly between speech and questioning, and that he sees this event as part of a longstanding academic tradition of "confronting ideas" whose determination to engage, rather than ignore, speaks to America's confidence in its beliefs and values.
Old film clips of Hitler depict him ranting from a podium about the supremacy of the Aryan race and the sinister nature of the Jews. Because the Nazis had taken control of the media and imprisoned dissenters in concentration camps, no one in Germany had the opportunity to challenge his racism or impugn his persecutions. The result was that he managed to indoctrinate millions and galvanize them to support his mass murder.
Many of those who oppose Ahmadinejad's visit call him the second Hitler. If this is the case, why should we allow him to spread his hate without having to account for his claims? Why would we not embrace and take advantage of this opportunity to question his actions and challenge his ideology, as those in Iran cannot? Exemplifying free speech within this country, especially to those whose views are so repugnant, will challenge hateful ideologies and demonstrate the importance of discourse.
Rebecca Evans and Brandon Hammer are Columbia sophomores and members of the Roosevelt Institution.