Saturday, September 22, 2007
Why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be allowed to speak at Columbia University
The execution by stoning of Jafar Kiani violates Iran’s obligations under international human rights treaties that it has ratified. Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in Article 6 that “in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.” According to Article 7 of the covenant, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature. We find that stoning is a particularly cruel form of capital punishment. Human rights principles and protections are founded upon respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings and the inviolability of the human person.
The government's opponents, real or imaginary—be they secular liberals, trade unionists, campaigners for women's rights, immodestly dressed youths, disgruntled ethnic minorities, even dissenting clergymen—have recently been subjected to a string of arrests, harassment and threats.
The country’s police chief boasted that 150,000 people — a number far larger than usual — were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic. More than 30 women’s rights advocates were arrested in one day in March, according to Human Rights Watch, five of whom have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to four years. They were charged with endangering national security for organizing an Internet campaign to collect more than a million signatures supporting the removal of all laws that discriminate against women.
One woman, Nazanin, 28, was stopped last month in Vanak Square, she thought she had dressed more modestly than usual, she said. But she was told that her coat was tight and showed the shape of her body…She received a warning about her large sunglasses, her coat, her eyeliner and her socks, which the police officers said should be longer. She was allowed to go after she signed a letter, which included her name and address, saying she would not appear in public like that again. The police have said the letters will be used against violators in court if they defy the rules a second time.
From all authoritative reports I have read, it seems that the regime of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad veers between farce and tragedy. The farce of wasting the recourses of a country in the midst of an economic crisis on keeping track of how tight a woman's clothes fit, and tragedy in the brutal denial of equality to women under the law and the stifling of free speech dissenting from the ideological line of the ossified theocracy that ultimately governs the country. This is to say nothing what appears to be Teheran’s active collusion in helping to create the bloodbath that is modern-day Iraq . Being a firm supporter of the separation of church and state, of free speech, of the equality of women, and of the right to self-determination of the Iraqi people free from either American or Persian overlords, reading the accounts of the kind of government Ahmadinejad and his supporters preside over fills me with disgust.
Much controversy has swirled around the invitation to speak that Ahmadinejad received from Columbia University on Monday preceding his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. Does a man who oversees such depredations, who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and who questions whether or not the Holocaust ever happened really belong lecturing at one of the premier universities in the United States?
In short, if they want him, yes. The strength of pluralistic democracy when compared with throwback theocracy is that it can rationally and openly confront even the most distasteful views and practices and knock them down through the strength or argument and debate. If one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear from an open debate. As I wrote almost exactly one year ago on this blog, when the address of another individual whose views I disdain - Minuteman Project head Jim Gilchrist, who assembled hundreds of volunteers, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants - was scuttled at Columbia, either campuses are places of free inquiry, where the airing of the views of the minority are given equal protection as the views of the majority, or they are not.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s and Mr. Gilchrist’s views, as repellent as they might be, are simply no match for an informed, vigorous and intelligent debate, and I certainly hope that Mr. Ahmadinejad is subject to robust questioning and challenging during a question-and-answer session following his address by the student body and faculty at Columbia. A large protest rally against the policies of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government, so long as it does not interrupt the address itself, would also seem to be highly desirable.
Mr. Ahmadinejad should be allowed to speak, but should be left in no doubt about how the students and faculty of Columbia University and, indeed, the citizens of New York City, view him and the practices of his government.