Below is the transcript of the introductory remarks to President Ahmadinejad (taken from the Tangible Info blog). I have added some short comments inside this text.
MR. BOLLINGER: I would like to begin by thanking Dean John Coatsworth and Professor Richard Bulliet for their work in organizing this event and for their commitment to the School of International and Public Affairs and its role — (interrupted by cheers, applause) — and for its role in training future leaders in world affairs. If today proves anything, it will be that there is an enormous amount of work ahead of us. This is just one of many events on Iran that will run throughout the academic year, all to help us better understand this critical and complex nation in today’s geopolitics.
Before speaking directly to the current president of Iran, I have a few critically important points to emphasize. First, in 2003 the World Leaders Forum has advanced Columbia’s long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas or our weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naivety about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open our public forum to their voices; to hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.
Second, to those who believe that this event should never have happened, that it is inappropriate for the university to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech in academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is an experiment as all life is an experiment. I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can that this is the right thing to do, and indeed it is required by the existing norms of free speech, the American university and Columbia itself.
Third, to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day (I have no idea whom he is referring to here, is that a hint that Iran had something to do with 911?), I say on behalf of all of us that we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it.
Fourth, to be clear on another matter, this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any rights of the speaker, but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves. We do it in the great tradition of openness that has defined this nation for many decades now. We need to understand the world we live in, neither neglecting its glories nor shrinking from its threats and dangers. It is inconsistent with the idea that one should know thine enemy — I’m sorry — it is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil, and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counterproductive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.
Lastly, in universities we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth. We do not have access to the levers of power, we cannot make war or peace, we can only make minds, and to do this, we must have the most fulsome freedom of inquiry.
Let me now turn to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
First, on the brutal crackdown on scholars, journalists and human rights advocates. Over the past two weeks, your government has released Dr. Haleh Esfandiari and Parnaz Azima and just two days ago, Kian Tajbakhsh, a graduate of Columbia with a PhD in Urban Planning. While our community is relieved to learn of his release on bail, Dr. Tajbakhsh remains in Tehran under house arrest, and he still does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country.
Let me say this for the record, I call on the president today to ensure that Kian will be free to travel out of Iran as he wishes. (Applause.) Let me also report today that we are extending an offer to Kian to join our faculty as a visiting professor in Urban Planning here at his alma mater in our Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and we hope he will be able to join us next semester. (Applause.)
The arrest and imprisonment of these Iranian Americans for no good reason is not only unjustified, it runs completely counter to the very values that allow today’s speaker to even appear on this campus, but at least they are alive.
According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executing In Iran so far this year, 21 of them on the morning of September 5th alone (makes me wonder whether Mr Bollinger will likewise introduce George Bush the Lesser with similar statistics about the USA). This annual total includes at two children, further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors.
There is more. Iran hanged up 30 people this past July and August during a widely reported suppression of efforts to establish a more democratic society. Many of these executions were carried out in public view, a violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. These executions and others have coincided with a wider crackdown on student activists and academics accused of trying to foment a so-called “soft revolution.” This has included jailing and forced retirement of scholars. As Dr. Esfandiari said in a broadcast interview since her release, she was held in solitary confinement for 105 days because the government believes that the United States is planning a velvet revolution in Iran.
In this very room, last year we learned something about velvet revolutions from Vaclav Havel, and we will likely hear the same from our World Leaders Forum speaker this evening, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile. Both of their extraordinary stories remind us that there are not enough prisons to prevent an entire society that wants its freedom from achieving it.
We at this university have not been shy to protest the challenge — and challenge the failures of our own government to live by our values, and we won’t be shy about criticizing yours. Let’s then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator (an amazing statement on two accounts: first, of course, this is a crude insult at a head of state which will be particularly shocking to anyone from the Middle-East where any guest, which President Ahmadinejad was at Columbia U, is never *ever* insulted or offended; second, Ahmadinejad is no dictator on any account since he has very little power being more a figurehead like the British Queen, although unlike her, Ahmadinejad was elected by direct popular vote). And so I ask you — (applause) — and so I ask you, why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country? Why, in a letter last week to the secretary-general of the U.N., did Akbar Ganji, Iran’s leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Noble Laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world’s attention from the intolerable conditions in your regime within Iran, in particular the use of the press law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system? Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?
In our country, you are interviewed by our press and asked to speak here today. And while my colleagues at the law school — Michael Dorf, one of my colleagues, spoke to Radio Free Europe, viewers in Iran a short while ago on the tenants of freedom of speech in this country — I propose further that you let me lead a delegation of students and faculty from Columbia to address your universities about free speech with the same freedom we afford you today. (Applause.)
Secondly, the denial of the Holocaust. In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as “a fabricated legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers. For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda.
When you have come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated (again, a direct and very crude insult which says very little about Ahmadinejad himself, but shows that the President of a major US university has the manners of an redneck or a cow-boy). You should know — (applause) — please — you should know that Columbia is the world center of Jewish studies — us a world center, and now in partnership with the — Institute of Holocaust Studies.
Since the 1930s, we provided an intellectual home for countless Holocaust refugees and survivors and their children and grandchildren. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. Because of this, and for many other reasons, your absurd comments about the debate over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who continue to fear humanity’s capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory, which is always virtue’s first line of defense. Will you cease this outrage?
The destruction of Israel. Twelve days ago you said that the state of Israel cannot continue its life. This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the past two years, including in October 2005, when you said that Israel “should be wiped off the map”, quote-unquote. Columbia has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution, we have deep ties with our colleagues there. I have personally spoken — personally, I have spoken out in most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars (in/and ?) universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. (Applause.)
More than 400 — more than 400 — more than 400 college and university presidents in this country have joined in that statement.
My question then is, do you plan on wiping us off the map too? (Applause.) (this entire line of reasoning is based on a totally discredited lie and overlooks that the only country in the Middle-East which was truly wiped off the map is Palestine)
Funding terrorism: According to reports of the Council on Foreign Relations, it’s well-documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terror that funds such violent groups as Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran helped organize in the 1980s, Palestinian Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. While your predecessor government was instrumental in providing the U.S. with intelligence and base support in the 2001 campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces. There are a number of reports that you also link your government with Syria’s efforts to destabilize the fledgling Lebanese government through violence and political assassination.
My question is this: Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and the civil society of the region?
The proxy war against the United States troops in Iraq — in a briefing before the National Press Club earlier this month, General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240- millimeter rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to, quote, “a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.” A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy.
Can you tell them and us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shi’a militia targeting and killing U.S. troops?
(yet another Neocon lie: Iran is supporting the exact same people as the USA does: the Dawa Party, the Badr Brigades and the Maliki government which are, by the way, armed with US suppplied weapons). And finally Iran’s nuclear program and international sanctions: This week, the United Nations Security Council is contemplating expanding sanctions for a third time, because of your government’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program. You continue to defy this world body by claiming a right to develop a peaceful nuclear power, but this hardly withstands scrutiny when you continue to issue military threats to neighbors. Last week, French President Sarkozy made clear his lost patience with your stall tactics, and even Russia and China have shown concern.
Why does your country continue to refuse to adhere to international standards for nuclear weapons verification, in defiance of agreements that you have made with the U.N. nuclear agency? (Iran is a full member of the IAEA in good standing with not a single unmet legal obligation). And why have you chosen to make the people of your country vulnerable to the effects of international economic sanctions, and threaten to engulf the world in nuclear annihilation? (Applause.)
Let me close with a comment. Frankly — I close with this comment frankly and in all candor, Mr. President. I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions (yet another crude insult, made by a President who, under pressure from the Lobby, himself showed no intellectual courage to treat a foreign head of state simply as a guest, or to learn the basic facts about Iran)
But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do. Fortunately I am told by experts on your country that this only further undermines your position in Iran, with all the many good-hearted, intelligent citizens there.
A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country, as at one of the meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations (yet another crude insult) so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party’s defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more. (Applause.)
I am only a professor, who is also a university president.
And today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for (amazing that Bollinger would fancy himself as a voice for civilization when his own behavior and manners would be more appropriate in a Florida trailer park) I only wish I could do better. Thank you.
Excerpts from President Ahmadinejad’s response:
I think the text read by the (dear ?) gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here, present here. In a university environment, we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the truth is eventually revealed by all. We’ll just leave that to add up with the claims of respect for freedom and the freedom of speech that is given to us in this country. In many parts of his speech, there were many insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully. You know that my main job is a university instructor. Right now as president of Iran I still continue teaching graduate and Ph.D.-level courses on a weekly basis. My students are working with me in scientific fields. I believe that I am an academic myself, so I speak with you from an academic point of view. And I raised two questions. But instead of a response, I got a wave of insults and allegations against me, and regretfully, they came mostly from groups who claimed most to believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of information. And as an academic, I ask two questions, the same two questions that I will ask here again. And you judge for yourselves whether the response to these questions should be the insults, the allegations and all the words and the negative propaganda, or should we really try and face these two questions and respond to them? Like you, like any academic, I, too, will keep — not get — become silent until I get the answers, so I am awaiting logical answers instead of insults. Why should an academic, myself, face insults when asking questions like this? Is this what you call freedom and upholding the freedom of thought?
I have to say that I am absolutely floored by the pathetic provincialism, the utter lack of basic manners, shown by the President of a prestigious US university. I would like to stress here that the issue is not the personality of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or, for that matter, his polices or views. The issue is that Mahmound Ahmadinejad is 1) an elected head of state and 2) an invited guest of Columbia University. No matter what one might think of Ahmadinejad, these two qualities alone would absolutely guarantee him a courteous reception in any civilized country, in particularly in the Middle East (even a thug like Saddam Hussein would never have insulted a foreign head of state and guest). But not in Columbia University whose President seemed to have forgotten that “diplomacy is the art of saying the most unpleasant things in the most pleasant matter”.
From this, as well as from the silence which surrounded the disgraceful events in DePaul which ended with the forced departure of Prof. Norman Finkelstein, I can only conclude that a large chunk of the formerly free US academia has prostituted itself to the Lobby’s power. One of the many cliches circulating about foreigners in the USA is that “AYErabs” are semi-litterate “ragheads” and “camel herders”. If only Americans realized that no camel herder in the Middle-East would ever treat any guest, no matter how personally repugnant, in the manner in which Bollinger treated President Ahmadinejad! His disgraceful behavior will only serve to reinforce in the mind of many outside the USA the well-known cliche by Georges Clemenceau:
America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization