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 Saturday, September 29, 2007

Plenty to be Learned from Iranian President Ahmadinejad's speech


Amanda MacLellan
(Amanda MacLellan of Manchester is a student at Barnard College in New York.)

On Monday afternoon, Columbia University welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to its campus.

A 21-year-old Barnard College student, I was in the thick of the campus throng. I did not organize or protest but stood as an observer, from the pre-event student rally to the end of Ahmadinejad's remarks.

Since then, I have observed the university administration's conduct, listened closely to students and followed the national news coverage.

To my grave disappointment, hours spent scouring authoritative newspapers and Columbia publications for some recognition or awareness of my point of view have proved fruitless: I have a strong belief in the educational potential of President Ahmadinejad's visit and words and was disappointed with the way my university, my classmates and the media responded.

In the hours leading up to the live outdoor webcast of President Ahmadinejad's remarks, I was proud of Columbia's bold decision to extend a speaking invitation to such a controversial and relevant personality.

After all, as a student I have been presented with many extremely controversial and "un-American" ideas on paper and been asked to analyze them.

I have read Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, and Alexander Stephen's Cornerstone Speech and considered each within the context of its historical period, drawing connections between almost unimaginable ideas and their roots in the economy, social conditions, and world events as they were understood in their time.

President Ahmadinejad's presence on campus had the potential to bring one such extraordinary ideology to life in the university context and give all who were watching an opportunity to observe his ideas and question the place of his political agenda in today's world. The failure of the event to be such an educational moment was not the fault of the Iranian president but of his audience.

Much has been made of President Ahmadinejad's uncompromising position on Iran's right to the development of atomic energy; his lengthy pontifications that entangled science with God and knowledge with religion; his avoidance of questions regarding "the destruction of Israel"; his own denial of the Holocaust; and his claim that homosexuality is a phenomenon that does not exist in Iran.

I do not dispute that these elements of his speech were as appalling as they were strange.

However, I am outraged by the relatively minuscule attention given to the issues President Ahmadinejad presented on which he was not wholly evasive, and from which we as students and citizens might have learned the most.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Ahmadinejad made reference to the fact that the United States is the only country in history to have used nuclear weapons against an enemy, and that, "today we can see the nuclear effects in even new generations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima residents, which might be witnessed in even the next generations to come." Ahmadinejad drew the audience's attention to the Palestinian people and the grave state of their human rights. "For 60 years, they are displaced . . ." he said, "For 60 years there is conflict and terror."

He expanded further upon this issue when reacting to questions on the Holocaust by asking, "Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price of an event they had nothing to do with?"

Asked by the university president, "Why is your government providing aid to terrorists?", Ahmadinejad did not admit that those groups he supports in the Middle East are terrorists.

However, he did shed light upon the way many of his followers have come to understand the United States' presence in their part of the world and the gray area that exists when labeling any enemy party "terrorist."

"If someone comes to your country and explodes bombs around you, threatens your president, members of the administration, kills members of the Senate and Congress, how would you treat them?" Ahmedinejad asked. "Would you reward them, or would you name them a terrorist group?"

He reinforced his point by alluding to a history of dishonorable U.S. involvement and Middle Eastern affairs. "You all know Saddam, the dictator, was supported by the government of the United States and some European countries in attacking Iran."

He furthered his accusations against the U.S. government in framing his conception of the United States as a terrorist state.

While Ahmadinejad's diplomatic track record does not allow us to accept anything that he says at face value, it is wrong to ignore the widely-shared rationale behind this handful of his ideas.

Our country has positioned itself as the head of an international police force controlling the right of sovereign nations to develop the atomic energy that only we have used for harm. The circumstances that face the Palestinian people represent an undeniable human rights issue.

And our government has had a hand in tampering with democracy in Iran and the surrounding region for over six decades.

We are quick to forget that in 1951, the CIA worked with British intelligence forces to incite a military coup against the then-democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had recently nationalized the British-owned oil industry of his country.

We continue to interfere with the balance of power in Iran and the Middle Eastern world, and our occupation of Iraq only rests on top of the wavering pile of intrusive Western foreign policies that has been growing since the close of World War II.

Yet has anyone in my classes or on the television directed their conversation toward these aspects of President Ahmadinejad's attempt at dialogue?


We gloss over those matters that hit a little too close to home, that stain our national reputation and challenge our mindset.

But no matter how hard we try to slant the truth, we cannot silence Ahmadinejad's confrontations by labeling them the ravings of a madman.

We can call him crazy every time our imposing and antagonistic world policy is complicated by his obstinacy, but we cannot go on pretending that this man was not democratically elected by an engaged people, in a nation where a greater proportion of the population exercises its right to vote than do Americans.

President Ahmedinejad has built his sphere of power using the same tactics our own leaders often employ.

Armed with an indubitable charisma, he has created among and around his followers an insular political culture of blame, hate and fear within an extremely polarized us-vs.-them paradigm.

His power is only strengthened by tragic examples of innocent bloodshed of his countrymen, forays into social, moral and religious politics, and media sound bites that sensationalize the ignorance and indignation of his enemies.

Are President Ahmedinejad's rants about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. military presence in his region completely unfounded?


Our country's adamant dismissal of them will not prevent others in the world from using them as a basis for their own political agendas. These are perspectives that have a real context in a world of fear and instability that we have helped to create.

Let us take this event and use the experience to reflect on the emotional politics that have engulfed the Middle East and also on our role in creating, maintaining and striving to change these terrible conditions.

Let us suspend our self-serving outrage and initiate such thought.

Only then will we ever be able to realize the hard work, humility and compromise that are going to be required.

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