Ahmadinejad rose to power by shamelessly exploiting anti-Western sentiment, then used that power to crush his critics. He lies like a fox. There is no influential figure in the American Religious Right who does not look moderate and benign against the sharp relief of Ahmadinejad's worldview.
In 2009, we may all hope, Iranian voters will go to the polls and put an end to this nonsense. Until then, there is considerable reason for concern. Ahmadinejad's actions have further destabilized the Middle East, contributed to violence in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, reversed many of the promising reforms of his predecessor's administration, and put his own country at risk of invasion. When Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger admitted that Ahmadinejad demonstrated "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," he was unquestionably telling the truth.
So why did Bollinger let him speak?
Certainly an American who shares even a fraction of Ahmadinejad's more radical beliefs--in theocracy, the silencing of dissidents, the subjugation of women, Holocaust denial, and the list goes on and on--would have trouble finding a forum at Columbia. The administrators would not want to give that person a platform with which to spread their misguided ideologies.
Some conservative commentators have, quite understandably, accused the academic left of hypocrisy in the matter of inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia. Isn't it funny, one might wonder, that the same people who protested Ann Coulter's speech at Xavier University because she once used an anti-gay slur are the first to defend Columbia University's decision to give a venue to a man who has actually been responsible for the state-sponsored execution of lesbians and gay men? Where are our priorities? Why are we giving this monster a platform?
Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that Ahmadinejad already has a platform. As ruler of a country of 70 million, Ahmadinejad can get the world's attention whenever he wants it. We don't have the option of simply depriving him of his channels of communication and hoping that he goes away. Might doesn't make right, but it does buy relevance. By marginalizing hatemongers in our own country, we can deprive them of their ability to influence the world--but as long as he has power, Ahmadinejad will never be irrelevant.
So does this mean, as many conservative bloggers have asked, that if Adolf Hitler asked to speak at Columbia in 1938, we would have been well served to honor that request? Well, let's look at that proposition a little more closely. What if, in 1938, more Americans were made aware of the threat Hitler posed? What if, in 1938, more Americans were made aware of the rising German tide of antisemitism, fascism, and nationalism? Could a Hitler speech at Columbia University have destabilized Nazi-Soviet relations? Could it have inspired more anti-Hitler sentiment in Germany? Could it have inspired a stronger anti-Hitler prewar sentiment in the United States? Could it have persuaded Chamberlain not to cede Czechoslovakia? Could it have ultimately saved millions of lives? We don't know the answer to that question, and we can't know the answer to that question, but it's a question that we should ask ourselves every time we think we're doing the world a favor by depriving some foreign despot of a venue.
Let's also consider the war of ideas that is presently being waged in Iran. Do we really want to see Ahmadinejad reelected in 2009? (There is only one sane answer to that question.) If not, what actions are we preparing to take to win the hearts and minds of the Iranian people? Because Iran is an extremely modern country and, despite the level of domestic oppression that exists there, Iranians are not walled off from the rest of the world. Modern technology has made that impossible, particularly in a semi-industrialized nation with a per capita income eight times that of India. Iranian teenagers text message each other on cell phones, much as American teenagers do. And cybercafes, which have become ubiquitous in Iran's major cities, provide Iranians access to the world of ideas--and this includes American culture. Are we really helping to spread democracy in Iran if Americans have no idea what Ahmadinejad's beliefs are, or why the Iranian people put him in office?
For the sake of the Iranian people, for the sake of our global counterterrorism efforts, for the sake of Israel, and for the sake of stability in the Middle East, we must take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously as a cultural adversary. Is it fair that Ahmadinejad's power has given relevance to an ideology that does not deserve relevance? No--but when tens of millions of lives hang in the balance, we can't always afford to be fair. We have an obligation to defeat Ahmadinejad's message. That means we also have an obligation to hear it.