24 September 2007

Journeys with Mahmoud

The story of the day was the speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the students and faculty at Columbia University. It started with a bang, as Columbia President Lee Bollinger lambasted the Iranian leader for many of his statements - on denying the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, supporting Hezbollah, supplying the weapons that kill American soldiers and innocent Iraqis in Iraq, and calling for the destruction of Israel.

Ahmadinejad seemed, through the television lens, to be as much amused by the introduction as he was insulted. Indeed, one could see how he reveled in - what he certainly viewed as - the irrational media pressure applied to Bollinger as a win for Ahmadinejad - allowing him to appear the rational, decent one and Bollinger to be the brusque, insulting Westerner. In Ahmadinejad's view, Bollinger played into the Iranian leader's hand. In the view of many Westerners, Bollinger gave him a small fraction of what he deserved.

The text of Mahmoud's speech was relatively banal in nature, waxing farsi-cal about knowledge and the nature of learning. He is also prone to hyperbole about how fantastic things are in Iran, not unlike political incumbents in any nation, but his takes on a far-fetched quality - perhaps the messenger, perhaps the message.

The real action was in the question and answer session. He obfuscated on the Holocaust denials, suggesting the need for "more research", as though the question was not yet answered and framing his answer in such a way as to suggest that anyone seeking to adopt a measure of certainty as an anti-intellectual. It is a clever and wholly dishonest way of dismissing evil, especially when in the next breath he is happy to cast 60 years of blame on Israel and the United States.

One of the most notable and revealing portions of the Q & A was when Mahmoud asserted that there "were no homosexuals" in his country. Not surprising, since it is illegal in Iran and you can be executed for it. A great day for freedom of speech, indeeed.

The Iranian President showed both why we should listen to him - he is a politician aggressively making a play for attention on the world stage - and why we should never be confused as to the side of gap - between free people and repressive regimes - on which Ahmadinejad resides. He is the international mouthpiece for a regime that represses gays, cloaks women, engages in the intellectual dishonesty of trumpeting some history while ignoring or denying the rest, and most significantly, attempts to fool people into believing not what they see but what they hear.

If there is a great shame to the West, it is that we cannot seem to muster a single politician to stand on the same stage next to this man and show the world just what he is and what he represents.