Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Columbia's "Controversy"

09/24/2007 04:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leading up to today's event, which I attended, I kept hearing and reading that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a "controversial" figure. But controversy implies a dispute, and there seems to be a unanimous consensus on campus that the Iranian president is repugnant, and his world views reprehensible.

For that reason it might be more appropriate to label Ahmadinejad as a "divisive figure." The controversy, after all, isn't about him, so much is it about us. Whether we can extend tolerance to those who espouse intolerance and hatred, and whether we are secure enough in our own positions and institutions to listen to public criticism from someone who would censure such discourse within his own nation.

President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University expanded on this important distinction during his frigid welcoming remarks to Mr. Ahmadinejad: "We are required by the norms of free speech" to "excercise extraordinary restraint and not retreat" in the "face of evil." "We do not honor the dishonorable," he said, but "do it for ourselves, to understand the world we live in."

Mr. Bollinger's remarks were not addressed to Mr. Ahmadinejad. In fact, I don't recall him ever even looking at the man. They were addressed to those within the greater audience that would criticize Columbia for offering its institutional legitimacy as leverage to a Holocaust denier and terrorist sponsor. "I am only a professor who happens to be the President of a University," Bollinger said, before briskly walking off stage. "I speak for those yearning to express their collective revulsion. I only wish I could do better."

As a student of Columbia, and an American citizen, I wish Bollinger had done better too. I found his petty insults (at one point he charged "I doubt you have the intellectual courage to answer these questions") to be unnecessarily aggressive and uncivil. He promised a "robust discourse" and delivered a bait-and-switch public admonition, to which Ahmadinejad rightfully took offense, as a guest of the University.

Just as we must show restraint in not retreating from contentious debates, so must we constructively engage in these debates in an effort to embolden our own positions and weaken our enemies'. Insults are, and have always been, the trademark of the insecure.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, recognized his role in our internal debate over free-speech and discourse. He warned that self-absorption allows for misconstrual of the actions and intentions of others. That questioning the rights of others to ask questions is in itself a questionable practice.

All very enlightening guiding principles, if they were actually practiced and recognized within his country, or if the questions he was asking weren't the veracity of the Holocaust. (The highlight of the event by far was when, in response to accusations of repressing homosexuality, he stated: "Iran doesn't have the issue of homosexuals," and the audience collectively laughed at him.)

Ahmadinejad is a crackpot, certainly. But it is not enough to dismiss him with an insulting label and move on. We must be willing to listen to the accusations of our enemies in order to properly defend the actions we take in the world in which we live. And I am proud to be part of a university and country that is strong enough to allow such discourse.