The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University may have been an invaluable academic exercise, but it did nothing to change the already frozen opinions of the day, on either side of a growing divide.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, was originally scheduled to visit and speak at Columbia University last September. It didn’t happen; the invitation, from the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, was issued at too short a notice for any arrangements to be made at all. Even in that brief spurt of activity, however, criticism had begun to descend upon the University, like moody rain that is prescient of the gathering storm.

Delayed announcement

That may have prompted Lee Bollinger, President of the University, to delay his announcement of Ahmadinejad’s visit this year. The official email reached students less than a week before the date of his talk, and even many faculty and staff learned of the news only hours before their students. The delay didn’t, however, stave off the storm; in the first working hour of the day after the email went out, a receptionist at the School of International and Public Affairs had already complained of receiving three abusive phone calls.

The weekend before Ahmadinejad’s visit witnessed a surprisingly one-sided media debate on free speech. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, attacked Ahmadinejad incessantly, and New York City officials were particularly scathing. Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, called his statements “hate-mongering vitriol”, and the New York State Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, made ominous noises about the State’s “capital support” to the University. The New York Post, never one to mince words when on the attack, published an editorial headlined: “Columbia Hosts a Thug”. Defence of the University’s decision, if any at all, was diffident at best.

On the morning of Ahmadinejad’s visit, the sidewalk of Broadway was barricaded for two blocks on either side of the Roone Arledge Auditorium. A Hostage Negotiation Team police van idled on one corner, and police grappled with protestors and TV camera crews at the main campus gates, just a block from the auditorium. Columbia’s chapter of Hillel, a Jewish campus life organisation, draped gates and bushes with banners that bore their own messages — “A man of lies does not belong in a place of truth” — and Ahmadinejad’s quotations — “We did not have a revolution in order to have a democracy”.

Opposing views

Much more visibly than in the media, there was contrarian activism too. Some student groups defended the Republic of Iran and its culture; others condemned President George W. Bush as an equally worthy villain. As the day progressed, however, an anti-Ahmadinejad rally commenced on the sunlit campus lawns and gathered strength. By the time the event ended, Broadway was choked with protestors, the loudest of whom could be heard repeatedly chanting: “Shame on Columbia”.

Perhaps it was all this ceaseless criticism that prompted Bollinger to be especially vicious in his introductory remarks at the event. Bollinger argued for Columbia’s right to give Ahmadinejad a forum, but he then proceeded to call Ahmadinejad “a petty and cruel dictator”. He called the Iranian President’s questioning of the Holocaust “ridiculous” and ended by saying: “Frankly, and in all candour Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions.” Throughout the speech, as students accorded Bollinger raucous applause, Ahmadinejad sat unmoved, a hint of a smile permanently in place.

Most of Ahmadinejad’s own speech, it must be said, was a model of misdirection. Clad in a grey suit without a tie, and speaking in a low tone that only sporadically became animated, Ahmadinejad took the podium like a professor delivering a lecture he has given often in the past. He began, to applause, thus: “In Iran, tradition requires that when we invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment and we don’t think it’s necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of claims…”

Ahmadinejad then proceeded on a lengthy, prepared discourse on the nature of academia, knowledge and science, quoting liberally from the Koran and taking only glancing digs at “bullying powers”. He refused to be drawn into Bollinger’s pointed questions: Why Iran repressed its scholars and academics, why it sponsored terrorism against the U.S. in Iraq, why he wanted Israel “wiped off the map”, why it persisted in public executions of women and minors.

Ahmadinejad only obliquely referred to his public questioning of the Holocaust, calling it a defence of an academic perspective of inquiry and asking why, “even if it did happen, should the Palestinian people have to pay the price for it”. He was on firmer ground with Iran’s nuclear record, pointing out that his country’s nuclear programme had repeatedly been found to be non-martial by IAEA inspectors. As he concluded, he was greeted with more sustained applause than when he entered, but also considerable booing and hissing.

Evasive replies

Like an ill-trained adagio dancer, but with his placid expression still in place, Ahmadinejad sidestepped the questions from the audience as well. He vaguely suggested that, rather than calling for an end to Israel, he merely wanted a referendum to decide the state of Palestinian Arabs and Jews. Asked again about the Holocaust, he repeated that he only supported an alternative spirit of inquiry. In what will probably go down as his most quoted line from the event, he rejected the idea that Iran allowed its homosexuals no freedoms. “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, as in your country,” he said, to laughter. “I don’t know who told you we have them.”

Ahmadinejad’s dissembling, and Columbia’s reluctance to push him beyond a point for answers, did nothing to change any minds or opinions on the day. As an exercise in academic freedom, the event may have been priceless, but it did little to broaden anybody’s knowledge of him or Iran. That and the media’s cloudburst of criticism are perhaps definite signs that American opinion about Iran has already been shaped and solidified beyond repair.

“A TV news crew asked me, as an Iranian, what Ahmadinejad’s standing was at home,” a Columbia student told me. “I said that he was sometimes seen as a hero, but I was about to add a caveat and present a more complete picture when the TV journalist whipped the mike away. ‘Yes, yes, that’s enough, we know the rest,’ she said. They simply weren’t interested in hearing the other side of the story.”