Protests mark Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Protest swept the campus in Morningside Heights.
Image: David Shankbone.
The event enflamed passions over many issues: "Who gives a shit about God?" asked a man who identified himself as Rumpel Stiltskin. "I hope you rot in hell!" replied Hattie Booker of Harlem, waving a Bible. "This man is terrible! You're pitiful!".
Image: David Shankbone.

The Columbia University campus in New York City erupted today in protest over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's debate with Columbia President Lee Bollinger. Ahmadinejad's presence on one of the United States' most prestigious universities brought out protesters from many causes to make their opinions known: whether Ahmadinejad should speak or not, the war in Iraq, Israel,George W. Bush, American imperialism', God and morality, all of which created a powder keg of opinions which made the air feel as if at any moment it would explode into fisticuffs.

Ahmadinejad has been widely criticized for his anti-semitic remarks and as a holocaust denier, as well as Iran's support for terrorism. He also believes that 9/11 was an “inside job”, involving Israel's Mossad or American ‘intelligence and security services.’ 9/11 family members have been loudly critical of Ahmadinejad, since last week when he requested a visit to Ground Zero to lay a wreath -- what has been widely viewed as a photo op.

The New York tabloid press splashed their covers with antagonizing headlines. The Daily News ran the headline "The evil has landed" and The New York Post labeled Ahmadinejad the "Madman Iran Prez". Since New York hosts the headquarters of the United Nations, whose charter requires that all member nations have access to the governing body, delegations of governments identified as enemies of the United States --North Korea, Cuba, Iran-- live and work in the city. At times, their governments come to address the governing body, as the Iranian President did on Monday.

Ahmadinejad's presence tore apart the usually close-knit community of students and academics that inhabit Columbia's enclave in Morningside Heights. "A high-quality academic discussion depends on intellectual honesty," wrote Columbia Law Dean David M. Schizer, "but, unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven himself, time and again, to be uninterested in whether his words are true. Therefore, my personal opinion is that he should not be invited to speak." The Columbia Conservative Alumni Association said "the university is extending not a courtesy, but continuing a policy of anti-Israeli and anti-American leftist nihilism under the guise of academic freedom."

Richard Bulliet, an Iranian expert at Columbia who was instrumental in arranging the visit, defended the notion that it is imperative to listen to one's enemies. "If there is any likelihood of war between the U.S. and Iran, it is important for Americans to have some access to the direct words of the president of the other country. At least they are getting Ahmadinejad's views directly from him and not a reporter who has an ax to grind."

Sunsara Taylor, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and a student, had a mixed view. Although in theory Taylor did not have an issue with the Iranian President's presence on campus, she had a problem with "The event without any intervention or debate from the students...is reinforcing a bad dynamic where people feel they need to choose between Islamic Fundamentalism and U.S. Imperialism. I think it's fine for him to speak, but I think it's a responsibility of people in this country not to be bamboozled into going along with a war against a country's people just because that country's leader is a reactionary."

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