Joe Loconte reflects on Columbia University's decision to host a speech by the Iranian President.
THE DECISION TO INVITE THE PRESIDENT OF IRAN to speak at New York’s Columbia University has been defended as a shining example of the school’s climate of “open exchange.” University officials insisted ad nauseum that they were upholding the principles of “dialogue,” the “free exchange of ideas,” and the importance of “intellectual debate.” Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who strenuously defended the invitation as “the right thing to do,” lauded the university’s “deep commitment to free speech and debate.”
Mr. Bollinger no doubt hopes that his 14-minute introduction deploring the rhetoric and behavior of his honored guest, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will soften the criticism of Columbia as the latest safe haven for Islamic terrorists. Mr. Bollinger’s remarks were certainly deserved, and he has achieved his 14 minutes of fame for delivering them. But the consequences of that achievement could prove toxic—in Iran, the Middle East and beyond.
One obvious problem with the university’s stage play is that, by its own standards of acceptable speech, it has hurled itself into a tar pit of hypocrisy. This is the same university, after all, that has banned the presence of the U.S. military’s recruiting program, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC. Their argument is that the university forbids discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. It therefore finds the military’s posture toward gays—don’t ask, don’t tell—to be a clear-cut violation of its principles.
Well, now. It is widely known, and widely confirmed by human rights groups, that the Iranian regime treats homosexuality with violent contempt. Under its Shari’a law, individuals suspected of being gay are subject to arrest, imprisonment and execution. At yesterday’s event, Mr. Ahmadinejad was asked why his country executed homosexuals. Here was his answer:
“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals…In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”
We also know—as General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recently reminded us—that Iran is fomenting terrorist violence in Iraq with arms and financial support. Gen. Petraeus accuses Iran of seeking to “create a Hezbollah-like force” in Iraq to extend Tehran’s malicious influence in the region. There can be little doubt that Iran’s proxy war in Iraq has caused the deaths of many U.S. soldiers and the suffering and death of countless Iraqi civilians.
Here, then, is the moral reasoning of Columbia University, a logic with more twists than a New York pretzel: The U.S. military, which defends America’s democratic freedoms, is banned from campus because it discriminates against gays. But the president of an extremist regime that makes homosexuality a capital crime, a regime which is killing American soldiers trying to defeat extremism, gets a red-carpet invitation. It reminds me of an old Groucho Marx joke:
“Here are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
The other problem with the school’s hosting of Ahmadinejad is its hopelessly blinkered view of free speech. Like most liberal and secular institutions, it assumes that democratic rights can be exercised without any real sense of civic responsibilities. The result is that it turns free speech into an absolute, unqualified right—a cosmic trump card.
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, got it right when he called Ahmadinejad’s visit “a perversion of the concept of freedom of speech.” What are the obligations of universities when it comes to promoting, or marginalizing, ideologies of hate? Iran is a state sponsor of international terrorism. Its president convenes conferences denying the Holocaust. He and other state leaders have boasted openly about the destruction of Israel (and America). As the Iranian president told CNN:
“And God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism.”
When asked point blank at yesterday’s event whether his government intended to annihilate the Jewish state, Mr. Ahmadinejad flatly refused to answer the question.
It should have come as no surprise. “There’s no requirement, no moral imperative, to give him a platform that he will not give in Tehran,” Foxman said. He was joined by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The “healthy exchange of differing ideas,” she said, “should not include state-sponsored terrorism and hate speech.”
The civil libertarians at Columbia and elsewhere grow livid at remarks like this, but only because they’ve forgotten the moral foundations of free speech in a free society. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke pushed the envelope for the rights of speech and conscience in 17th century Europe. He assailed church and state authorities who would “forbid the preaching or professing of any speculative opinions.” But Locke never divorced a person’s natural rights from his moral obligations to God and to his neighbor. He strongly opposed speech that showed contempt for the human rights of others and the civic peace of the commonwealth. Those who would “establish dominion over others” or seize their goods, he said, “have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate.”
Should they be tolerated by the modern university? There is surely a cost involved in giving a platform to Ahmadinejad’s brand of Islamic extremism—a cost that Columbia University refused to even contemplate. Instead, university elites talked condescendingly of their critics, as if their decision to host the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, circa 1938, was a no-brainer. “This is the right thing to do,” insisted Mr. Bollinger. “And it is required by the existing norms of free speech.”
Huh? What imaginary “norms” of existing speech codes give their blessing to a global infomercial for anti-Semitic hate-mongering? What tortured principle demands that academic institutions engage in “dialogue” with political leaders who vow the destruction of another sovereign state?
By handing this religious demagogue a microphone, by giving him an international audience to defend his country’s “rights” to nuclear energy against the Great Satan—which he invoked repeatedly—the university granted him exactly what he wanted: a renewed measure of status and respectability for his views. “The Iranian president had the microphone, unmolested, for the best part of an hour,” writes TIME magazine’s Tony Karon. “Playing the nuclear card as an expression of Iranian national pride has always been part of his domestic political game, and the breathless television coverage his visit has prompted in the U.S. won’t do his domestic prospects any harm.”
Sometimes the most virtuous response to ideologues who exult in repression and murder is not to give them more air time, but less. Mr. Bollinger and Columbia University got their 14 minutes of fame. Time will help us decide if it was worth it.
Joe Loconte is a columnist for BritainandAmerica.com and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.