Ahmadinejad: Speaking softly won't help

By Jeff Gustafson

Much has been said of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent speech at Columbia University. I would like to respond to an article by Mina Tehrani (“An Iranian Weighs In,” in the Oct. 5 issue of The Mac Weekly).

Tehrani rightly chastises Columbia President Dr. Lee Bollinger for his rudeness prior to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, though I think a bit of historical context might clarify things, if not excuse Dr. Bollinger. Anti-Semitism was a major factor in Ivy League admissions in the first part of the 20th century, but Columbia’s then-president Nicholas Murray Butler went further. He expressed open admiration for the Italian fascists and made efforts to strengthen bonds between Columbia and Italian schools. Naturally, he also liked Hitler, and even invited German Ambassador Hans Luther to give a phony speech about Germany’s “peaceful intentions” for the rest of Europe. Three persons were forcibly removed from the speech after daring to ask about the immolation of exiled professors’ houses. It’s a bit speculative to suggest that this shameful history was the main motivation for Bollinger’s words, though I doubt he didn’t at least have it in mind.As for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s actual character, I think there are several points that require more discussion. Commenting on a previous article by Alex Park, Ms. Tehrani says there needs to be “strong evidence” of Ahmadinejad’s complicity in terrorism, the execution of protestors, and the oppression of women. First of all, I think there needs to be a shift in the burden of proof. Independent of Ahmadinejad’s involvement in said matters, it is known for a fact that he thinks, among other things, that the Holocaust is a Zionist Myth and that Israel ought to be wiped off the map. I submit that this puts the onus on anyone who would say that Ahmadinejad is not dangerous, both to his own country and the rest of the world, regardless of his domestic popularity.

There is, in fact, evidence to substantiate some of the claims made by Mr. Park. While Iranian involvement in Iraq is a matter of intense debate and speculation, one need look no further than Amnesty International for Iran’s unattractive human rights record. Amnesty reports that at least 177 people were executed in 2006, including at least four under 18 (for the record: Mr. Park’s article said that protestors as young as twelve were “routinely executed,” not that twelve-year-olds were routinely executed, as Ms. Tehrani says). This is up 83 from 2005, when Ahmadinejad was president only from August onward. It is, however, unknown how many of these deaths were for political “crimes.”

More concretely, there is good reason to believe that protest is stifled; Human Rights Watch suggests that there has been a significant shift away from tolerance of peaceful protests that characterized Ahmadinejad’s (relatively moderate) predecessor, Mohammed Khatami.

But however disturbing Ahmadinejad’s individual quirks may be, they are made more so by the openly eschatological religious context in which he sees himself. Speaking at the UN in September 2005, he gave this superficially touching oration: “O Mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.” By “justice and peace,” he means of course a specifically Islamic form. It is for these reasons that I think ascribing Ahmadinejad’s obvious extremism to American “lack of respect” or “knee-jerk dismissal of people who don’t speak and think the same way as us” does nothing to advance meaningful dialogue between two vastly different cultures. As for Ms. Tehrani’s work with Iranian NGOs, I have no intention of demeaning the undoubtedly valuable contributions she has made through them. Nor could I conceive of myself ever approving a U.S.-sparked war with Iran. But confrontation is unavoidable. Just as I recoil at the thought of American Christian fundamentalists supporting Israel purely as a means to tripwire the apocalypse, so I am frightened by a government that thinks it is hastening the arrival of a dominionist prophet. A war of ideas is necessary to combat such world-negating notions. I desperately hope it does not turn to a war of bombs.

Jeff Gustafson ’09 can be contacted at [email protected]