By Adrian Haimovich
Columbia University sophomore
and President of the Roosevelt Institution at Columbia University.
President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University on Monday won’t generate any sensational stories—not the questions posed, nor the canned responses generated, not even the protests staged. The import of the speech is not in what happens, but that it happens.
In January 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt stood in front of Congress and spoke of his vision of the future. “We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world…the freedom to worship everywhere in the world…the freedom from want everywhere in the world…and the freedom from fear anywhere in the world.”
Columbia University is standing up for the First Amendment of this great nation’s Constitution as well as one of FDR’s essential freedoms. The greatness of this fundamental part of democracy lies in the right to speak, be it in a university auditorium or national assembly, and to challenge the ideas found intolerable using the powers of reasoning and debate.
As University President Lee Bollinger wrote, “It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas.”
Those who argue that listening to Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust or tirades against the Western world somehow legitimizes him have missed the point altogether. His power is wholly derived through the subjugation of his people and the suppression of ideas. In Iran, Ahmadinejad reigns supreme. At this academic forum, he does not. He is among equals in this conversation, among students and faculty who seek to confront his basic tenants.
That such a debate could take place on a university campus and that the people of this academic community are willing to openly challenge, through dialogue, ideas they find abhorrent is the key principle of this day.
In defending Ahmadinejad’s basic freedoms, we have, in the very same voice, called for him to do the same for all others. In his land, the government has denied the place of thought at the table of progress and has quenched the right to worship freely. More alarming yet, Ahmadinejad has been a force in the rapidly increasing international tensions of this day. Ahmadinejad has denied his people their essential freedoms.
In today’s world—a world that has stressed isolation from ideas uncomfortable to us—this event is a milestone. Columbia University is proud to stand with a watching America and challenge President Ahmadinejad to defend himself in this academic court.