Columbia president gives blistering reception to Ahmadinejad
September 24, 2007
NEW YORK – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to Columbia University expecting tough questions from students, but first he got a tongue-lashing from the school’s president.
University head Lee Bollinger said the hard-line leader acted like “a petty and cruel dictator,” then fired off accusations about Iran’s human rights record, Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust and his country’s alleged terrorist activities.
The Iranian president responded by saying Bollinger’s introduction was “an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here.”
“There were insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully,” Ahmadinejad said, accusing Bollinger of falling under the influence of the hostile U.S. press and politicians.
Ahmadinejad went on to defend Holocaust revisionists, raise questions about who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, and insist on his country’s right to a peaceful nuclear program. He sought to portray himself as an intellectual and argued that his regime had respect for reason and science. But the former engineering professor soon found himself drawn into the type of rhetoric that has alienated American audiences in the past.
He provoked derisive laughter by responding to a question about Iran’s execution of homosexuals by saying: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country … I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”
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At times, he drew audience applause, such as when he bemoaned the plight of the Palestinians. But he also often declined to offer the simple answers the audience sought, responding instead with his own questions or long discussions about history and justice.
Bollinger opened by aggressively taking on Ahmadinejad’s past statements about the Holocaust.
“In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as the fabricated legend,” he said. “One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.”
Bollinger said that might fool the illiterate and ignorant.
“When you come to a place like this, it makes you simply ridiculous. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history,” he said.
Ahmadinejad said he wasn’t passing judgment on whether the Holocaust occurred, but that, “assuming this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?”
He went on to say that he was defending the rights of European academics imprisoned for “questioning certain aspects” of the Holocaust, an apparent reference to a small number who have been prosecuted under national laws for denying or minimizing the genocide.
“There’s nothing known as absolute,” he said. He said the Holocaust has been abused as a justification for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians.
“Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?” he asked.
Ahmadinejad has in the past called for Israel’s elimination. But his exact remarks have been disputed. Some translators say he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” but others say that would be better translated as “vanish from the pages of time” – implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.
Asked Monday if he sought Israel’s destruction, Ahmadinejad refused to answer directly.
“We are friends of all the nations,” he said. “We are also friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security.” He added that Palestinians must be allowed to determine their own future.
Questioned about why he had asked to visit the World Trade Center site – a request denied by New York authorities – Ahmadinejad said he wanted to express sympathy for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Then he appeared to question whether al-Qaida was responsible, saying more research was needed.
“If the root causes of 9/11 are examined properly – why it happened, what caused it, what were the conditions that led to it, who truly was involved, who was really involved – and put it all together to understand how to prevent the crisis in Iraq, fix the problem in Afghanistan and Iraq combined,” Ahmadinejad said.
Bollinger drew strong criticism for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia and had promised tough questions in his introduction. But the stridency of his attack on the Iranian leader took many by surprise, and it could backfire in the Middle East, where a tradition of hospitality toward guests is highly valued.
“You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated,” Bollinger told Ahmadinejad about the leader’s Holocaust denial. “Will you cease this outrage?”
Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, said Bollinger’s introduction was “very harsh.”
“Inviting him and then turning around and alienating and insulting an entire nation whose representative this man happens to be is simply inappropriate,” Dabashi said.
In Iran, Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia could be seen on Arabic satellite channels and state television’s Arabic-language service, but it did not appear on channels that broadcast in Farsi, the language of Iran.
During his prepared remarks, the Iranian president did not address Bollinger’s accusations directly, instead launching into quotes from the Quran and criticism of President Bush’s administration and past American governments, from warrant-less wiretapping to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
He closed his prepared remarks with a terse smile, to applause and boos, before taking questions from the audience.
Asked about his country’s nuclear intentions, he insisted the program is peaceful, legal and entirely within Iran’s rights, despite attempts by “monopolistic,” “selfish” powers to derail it. “How come is it that you have that right, and we can’t have it?” he added.
Bush said Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia “speaks volumes about, really, the greatness of America.”
He told Fox News Channel that if Bollinger considered Ahmadinejad’s visit an educational experience for Columbia students, “I guess it’s OK with me.”
But conservatives on Capitol Hill were critical. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said he thought the invitation to Ahmadinejad was a mistake “because he comes literally with blood on his hands.”
Thousands of people jammed two blocks of 47th Street across from the United Nations to protest Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York for Tuesday’s opening of the U.N. General Assembly ministerial session. Organizers claimed a turnout of tens of thousands. Police did not immediately have a crowd estimate.
• Associated Press writers Karen Matthews and Aaron Clark contributed to this report.