Monday, September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad & Academe

At the end of the Columbia Hillel Reform Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur) service, the rabbi urged all the congregants to join the protest Monday against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whom Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs is hosting for its annual World Leaders Forum.

At the time, I generally agreed that protesting Ahmadinejad was worthwhile. Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, calls for destruction of the State of Israel, and generally holds odious and illiberal beliefs on many subjects. Furthermore, he is in a position of political power to effectuate at least a subset of these despicable beliefs into action.

Ah, but the protest is only partially against Ahmadinejad. Most of the rhetoric seems to be directed against Columbia University for allowing Ahmadinejad to participate in the World Leaders Forum.

The main argument against Columbia's action (or inaction, depending on how you view the events) is that providing Ahmadinejad with a forum at Columbia University either (1) implies academic or Western endorsement of his beliefs, or (2) legitimizes him as a political figure. Andy's post effectively addresses the second prong, so I will address the first.

Despite various disclaimers by Columbia President Lee Bollinger that Ahmadinejad's participation does not amount to a University endorsement of his views, the millions of people who hear of this event will likely fail to make this distinction, and may think more highly of Ahmadinejad or his beliefs than before. Even though the University interlocutors promise to "sharp[ly] challenge[]" Ahmadinejad, the simple granting of a forum to some extent implies that his beliefs are worth challenging.

The critical difference, as I see it, is that Ahmadinejad is not simply a layman who holds such beliefs. In other words, he is not "a Grand Wizard of the KKK who called for African nations to be wiped off the map." He is being invited because he is the leader (more accurately: second in charge) of a large and influential nation. If Ahmadinejad were just a shopkeeper in Tehran, Columbia would really have no business inviting him.

But even in this last case, I think Columbia should still have the right to invite him. This is a question of academic freedom. Specifically, it raises the following question: Are there people whose beliefs or actions are so odious that they should be forbidden from speaking at a university? This is a tough question, but I'm inclined to answer No.

As Mike Dorf has pointed out, refusing to allow some people to speak would imply university endorsement of everyone else who speaks. Since drawing the line once would mean having to draw the line forever, from a pragmatic standpoint it makes sense to adopt a hands-off approach.

At bottom, however, it comes down to how much one values the special position of the university in intellectual discourse. Yes, there is a danger that Ahmadinejad may gain in influence by participating in this event (though unlikely to gain much from the one person who matters: Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran), but academic self-censorship is more dangerous precedent. Most ideas are odious to someone. If universities are closed to ideas that lack a consensus, where can they be subject to rational criticism?

We have the powerful institutions of diplomacy and the military to oppose Ahmadinejad's implementation of his ideas outside the borders of Iran. What do we have to prevent the spread of academic self-censorship outside the borders of Columbia?

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