[I have had second thoughts about the position I expressed in this item. Although the American politicians like to call such reflection 'flip-flopping', I find it is the sign of a thoughtful person.]
A lot of obvious arguments have been rolled out against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University yesterday: that he's a hatemonger, a Holocaust denier, a homophobe, and so on. These are all valid criticisms of the man, for he is all those things. He certainly did his credibility no help yesterday with these remarks, reported by the BBC
'Asked about executions of homosexuals in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad replied: "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country."
Reacting to laughter and jeers from the audience he added: "In Iran we don't have this phenomenon, I don't know who you told this."'
Universities have a special place in public life. They are the one place where intellectual freedom is taken most seriously. That is not to say that universities ought to invite rude individuals with bad ideas to speak, but it is understandable that they sometimes do.
Despite all of that, Columbia was wrong to allow Ahmadinejad on its campus, and it's not because he hates Jews, gays, and men with stylish haircuts
. There are surely members of the Columbia community—faculty and students alike—who hold these and other prejudices. And it's not because he has blood on his hands. If that were the rule, it would be hard to find an important figure in world politics who qualified. Besides that, we might not agree on which international bloodletters were terrorists and which were freedom fighters. No, there is an even more fundamental reason than that: Ahmadinejad is the enemy of universities.
Since taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad has purged Iranian universities of dissidents and tried to de-secularize them as institutions. The BBC reported on December 20, 2006
'According to student activists 181 students have received letters warning them not to get involved in politics, while 47 student publications and 28 student organisations have been closed in the last year.
"It seems this is the start of a project to clean the slate—to get rid of those intellectuals who are secular opponents of the government," says student activist Abdullah Momeni.
He believes the purge started after President Ahmadinejad spoke about the need to remove secular and liberal thought from the universities.'
There are other widely reported news items of purges of faculty, arrests of students, and so on. Some readers may object that firing some professors and jailing some students is small potatoes compared to other nefarious activities committed by the Iranian government under President Ahmadinejad. But Columbia is a university
. Everyone there ought to feel a special commitment to stand in solidarity with their colleagues at Iranian universities.
Martin Luther King famously wrote in 1963 in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I don't know if King would agree with my extension of his idea—probably not—but I would like to offer Columbia and all the universities of the world a rule to follow: if a tyrant closes universities anywhere, then universities should be closed to him everywhere. No one who purges universities at home ought to be welcomed at any university abroad, particularly not at a great university with a strong commitment to academic freedom like Columbia.
Labels: Ahmadinejad, freedom, Iran