On-Scene at Columbia: Gasps, Cheers and Boos

If the goal of inviting controversial guests to speak at academic institutions is to facilitate passionate and thought-provoking debate, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University today was a smash hit.

Addressing a full house of 600 students and faculty, the man who has called the Holocaust "a myth" and urged the "elimination" of Israel, spoke at the university's World Leaders Forum ahead of his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly, scheduled for tomorrow.  Students and faculty who had preregistered for this rare event poured into Columbia's Lerner Auditorium some two hours before Ahmadinejad's arrival.

But in the end it was less the Iranian president's speech than the introductory remarks from Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger—an expert in free speech and First Amendment rights—that may have stolen the show.

Answering the concerns of Ahmadinejad's many critics, Bollinger drew gasps and scattered applause as he slammed the Iranian president for displaying "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." His voice shaking at times, Bollinger posed several questions to the guest speaker, asking why Iran serves as a "state sponsor of terrorism" and a supporter of "well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East."

As Ahmadinejad listened to Bollinger's remarks via a headset translator, he stood silently with a smirk on his face. Once it was his turn he immediately addressed his introduction, calling it a series of "false claims and allegations." He added, "In Iran, tradition demands that when we ask a person to be a speaker, we actually respect the students and the professors to allow them to make their own judgment."

The Iranian president began by addressing the relationship between God and science and the importance of academia, but his talk quickly shifted to reflect his political agenda. Tackling the question of the Holocaust, he insisted that academics should never close the doors on further research. "You shouldn't ask me why I am asking these questions," he said. "You should ask why it is questionable to stop research."

He also spoke powerfully on the subject of the Palestinian territories, demanding redemption for those who have been displaced or killed. "For 60 years security in the Middle East has been endangered," he stated.

And if he needed any further proof that this wasn't a quiescent hometown audience, it came during question time. Students and faculty asked tough questions on topics ranging from Iran's nuclear program to its treatment of women and homosexuals. In many cases Ahmadinejad responded by asking a counterquestion. When asked about homosexuals in Iran, his answer sparked laughter from the audience when he insisted "we don't have homosexuals in Iran."

Overall, the response to Ahmadinejad was mixed. At times his remarks drew a loud applause from the audience; at other times he was booed. He was edgy over the time constraint on his speech, insisting that Bollinger's introduction took longer than it should have.

Outside the campus gates, protestors young and old waved signs and flags expressing views in support of and against the Iranian leader. Dan Haim, a tourist visiting from Israel, said he ditched his tourist map as soon as he heard of Ahmadinejad's visit. "This man is a terrorist—just like [Osama] bin Laden or any other terrorist," he said. "Why don't they invite bin Laden to speak here, too?"

Meanwhile, from posters to rallies to online communications, students sought various—and often creative—ways to express their views. On Facebook, the online social networking sensation, sophomore Aaron Krieger organized a page exclusively for those who wished to voice their opinions—for or against—the Iranian leader. "What is essential is that everyone within Columbia's gates is able to get together and express their views in a way that's not going to lead to massive chaos but rather will allow everyone to hear what other students have to say."
Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia was a long time in the planning. During his visit to the U.N. General Assembly last year, the Iranian leader held an intimate breakfast with a handful of journalists and academics—among them Lisa Anderson, the former dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and Richard Bulliet, an expert on Iranian history.   Before leaving, Anderson extended an invitation to Ahmadinejad to speak at the university. However, the visit was vetoed once word got to Washington, with security logistics cited as the main problem. "Now that I see how much is involved in logistics and security during this visit, I'm much more willing to believe that this was a genuine concern," admits Bulliet.

Then, earlier this month, Bulliet received a call from the new Iranian ambassador to the United Nations requesting a meeting. The diplomat expressed an interest on the part of the Iranian government in renewing last year's invitation. Bulliet delivered the message to Bollinger, and the arrangements were put in place.

Ground rules were established as well. Many of the issues raised in Bollinger's introduction, such as Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, as well as his sentiments expressing a desire to wipe Israel off the map, had to be agreed upon by both parties prior to the visit, according to Bulliet. Other issues raised by Bollinger included human rights violations and the house arrest of Columbia alumnus Kian Tajbakhsh in Tehran.

As for the backlash that has accompanied the invitation, Bulliet calls Ahmadinejad's visit "entirely appropriate," adding that it is part of the responsibility of any academic institution to facilitate this type of forum to generate robust debate. "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," he says. "At least they are getting Ahmadinejad's views directly from him and not a reporter who has an ax to grind."

Not everyone was against the visit. Seats to the afternoon event were gone in under an hour—far less time than it took for the news to make its way across campus. Katie Hickerson, a graduate student in Columbia's Middle East Studies Department, was one of those who failed to get a place, but she shared in the buzz nonetheless.

"Maybe," she said, "if God were coming I might be just as excited."