Reflections on Ahmadinejad at Columbia
It has now been a week since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's much hyped appearance at Columbia University. As expected, Ahmadinejad tried to pose as a peace-loving moderate, but was simply too dogmatic and fanatical to pull it off. The best example was his ridiculous remark that "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals". B. Daniel Blatt and Brian Whitaker have exposed the absurdity of this comment, especially in light of the Iranian regime's barbarous treatment of gays. In addition, Ahmadinejad once again flirted with Holocaust denial and 9/11 trutherism, a position guaranteed to appeal only to the radical fringe. So bad was Ahmadinejad's performance that even many Iranians aren't buying his regime's efforts to spin the speech as a symbolic victory.
In reading the transcript of Ahmadinejad's speech, however, it is another comment that most stands out. It is a line from the very beginning of his address:
Oh, God, hasten the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers and those to attest to his rightfulness.
According to Shia theology, the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam, is an eschatological figure destined to return from hiding and herald the worldwide triumph of Shia Islam. This belief in the Mahdi and his imminent return lies at the heart of Ahmadinejad's fanatical Islamist vision.
Both Ahmadinejad and his religious and ideological mentor, Ayatollah Mohammed Tagi Mesbah-Yazdi, have stated that simply waiting for the Mahdi's return isn't enough: Muslims must actively lay the groundwork for his coming. In a May 2007 analysis, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) noted one way in which Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi plan to facilitate the Mahdi's return:
In a 2006 speech marking the Mahdi’s birthday, Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi emphasized the importance of fighting heresy, which, in his opinion, is delaying the coming of the Mahdi: “...Our noblest duty is to strive to reduce oppression, to be more [stringent] in our implementation of Islamic law... and to weaken the control of oppressive and tyrannical regimes over the oppressed. These [actions] can [hasten] the return of the Hidden Imam... If we wish to expedite the Mahdi’s coming, we must remove any obstacles [delaying his return]. What are the obstacles delaying the appearance of the Mahdi? [They are] the [heretical] denial of the blessing [conferred] on society by the presence of the Imam, [as well as] ingratitude, insubordination, and objections [to the doctrine of Mahdism]. If we want to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, we must eliminate these obstacles. We must strive to instate greater justice, ensure a [more stringent] implementation of Islamic law, [bring] the people to take greater interest in the faith and its directives, [establish] the religious laws as the dominant [values] of society, [ensure] that religious faith be taken as a consensus at conferences, and limit the [control of the oppressors, i.e. of the Western powers] over the oppressed throughout the world - both Muslim and non-Muslim. [This is what we must do] in order to prepare the ground for the Mahdi’s coming. Thus, the greatest obligation of those awaiting the appearance of the Mahdi is fighting heresy and global arrogance.” 
Ahmadinejad has amply demonstrated his commitment to fighting heresy since assuming the presidency in 2005. Among other things, he has overseen the banning of thousands of books, spearheaded an effort to crush academic freedom in Iranian universities, and initiated the most intense crackdown on "un-Islamic" women's fashion in over a decade.
On the one hand, it is helpful that Ahmadinejad was afforded the opportunity to make a fool of himself before a global audience. The fact remains, however, that Columbia decided to show its commitment to academic freedom by inviting a speaker whose goal is a world where free thought and inquiry have been eliminated. To be fair, Columbia President Lee Bollinger did make some of these points in his justifiably scathing introduction of Ahmadinejad. Still, as I wrote before the speech, I would be more impressed if Columbia decided to give American conservatives and the U.S. military the same right of free expression it accorded an Iranian fanatic.
John Leo made this same point about Columbia's free speech double standard in an excellent post at Minding the Campus. I'll give him the last word:
Several people, myself included, suggested that if Bollinger is as interested in free speech as he keeps saying he is, then he should reschedule the Minutemen and introduce them himself, with enough security around to discourage the reappearance of last year's stormtroopers in training.
A few weeks ago, it looked as though Columbia was about to make a rare lurch in the direction of free speech. Students re-invited the two Minutemen, but after these proposed speakers bought plane tickets, Columbia's pro-censorship DNA re-asserted itself and the two men were once again disinvited. Not a peep out of Bollinger.
One of Columbia's favorite tricks is to cancel a speaker, or reduce the size of the audience, on grounds that violence might break out. Last fall most of a large crowd that gathered to hear former PLO terrorist-turned-anti-Jihadist Walid Shoebat was turned away over securities worries. Only Columbia students and 20 guests got in. The same thing happened to Dinesh D'Souza, myself and several other speakers in 1999. A large crowd, including many from other New York campuses, had tickets, but the administration (this was a pre-Bollinger year) ruled that only Columbia students could attend. This was not the deal that had been agreed on, but Columbia was adamant. Rather than speak to a tiny remnant on campus, the speakers withdrew to a park nearby. As I spoke, one student shouted "Ha-ha. We're inside. You're out here," an excellent six-word explanation of how Columbia's robust free-speech tradition actually works.