Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Columbia Controversy: Call for Humility

My friend Daoud Kuttab (Executive Producer of Hikayat Simsim, the Palestinian "Sesame Street" production) is a guest professor in residence at Princeton this year. His perspective on the controversy surrounding the appearance of the Iranian President at Columbia University caught my attention because of my experience as an American visiting the Middle East last year. The Arab culture is unfailingly courteous, and I enjoyed repectful courtesy and hospitality throughout my visit, despite the fact that Americans are not exactly favorites these days. Daoud's perspective on the fiasco at Columbia likely reflects the way this incident was perceived throughout the Middle East.

We have to do better than this kind of shallow posturing if we want to reclaim the high road as champions of human rights and dignity.


By Daoud Kuttab
Guest Columnist, Daily Princetonian
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The controversy surrounding an academic invitation to the Iranian president reflects one of the more serious problems that is
negatively affecting the image of the United States around the world.

It was clear that Columbia president Bollinger and his staff wanted to boast that their university respects freedom of expression by inviting a controversial head of state. But when this academic exercise was challenged (mostly by radical pro-Israeli elements), he was forced to tweak this right in order to satisfy his critics and more importantly, the university donors. The way in which this problem was handled (nasty irreverent and unprovoked attack at a guest you invited) made the Ivy League university lose any credit it could have gained by what was otherwise a courageous decision.

The funny thing is that it didn't have to be like this. Columbia didn't have to invite Ahmadinajad even if he expressed interest in speaking at a U.S. school of higher learning within the 25-mile radius of the United Nations. But once the invitation was made, Bollinger should have had the decency to deal with this guest as they would any other guest. There is no evidence that Iran's human rights record has worsened in between the invitation and the speech. If anything, a few academics were released a few days earlier.

It is easy to be for freedom of expression when it is convenient and when everyone agrees with you. The problem is when one simply wants to have it both ways: wanting the appearance of defending freedoms yet intervening the moment it starts to hit your pocket. Serious students of U.S. foreign policy regularly feel this American schizophrenia. Take the case of Iraq and Palestine. The United States went to Iraq to free its people from a tyrant dictator only to find itself stuck in the middle of a civil war. Instead of letting the people of Iraq decide their fate, America decided to stay in order to protect its longterm interests in the region.

Instead of practicing the Wilsonian doctrine that guarantees the rights of peoples to determine their future, America approaches the issue very selectively. For example, the Kurdish people's right to determine their future is sacrificed to please America's powerful Turkish NATO member and ally.

The Palestinians' decades-long quest for freedom and independence is pushed aside because of domestic pressures from the pro-Israel and Christian right lobbies. Other examples abound. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush has taken taken rightly up the case of the people of Myanmar, but Taiwan is not memtioned because of America's interest in China.

It is natural for countries to defend their interests. It is also fair for a university president to try and respond to the desires of
his donors. But such posturing lacks the "intellectual courage" ( Bollinger's words) to pretend you are doing it in the name of
people's freedom (as in the case of Bush) or freedom of expression (as in the case of Bollinger.)

200 years ago, Voltarie said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Last century, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to demonstrate in the predominantly Jewish city of Skokie, Illinois. The Executive Director of the ACLU was Aryeh Neier who is Jewish and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Neier is today the president of the Open Society Institute, George Soros's foundation which supports freedoms around the world. One of the people working for the society is Dr. Kian Ajbakhsh, an Iranian American social scientist and urban planner, who a few days earlier was released from an Iranian jail but has not been allowed to leave Iran. Bollinger
announced that Ajbakhsh has been invited to teach at Columbia next year and called for his freedom of movement. It is unlikely that such a call will have much effect following the unwarranted, humiliating and disrespectful statement Bollinger made. Clearly, the university president was more interested in pleasing his university funders than in securing the professor's exit visa.

It is difficult to expect genuine fighters of freedom such as Neier and Kian in today's political and academic world. If living up
to such ideals is difficult, a little humility would serve all of us well. It would be more honest for the presidents of countries and universities to be truthful about the challenges of balancing interests and values rather than attempting to paint themselves as the heroes of freedom — which they are not.

Daoud Kuttab is a Ferris Professor of Journalism and an award-winning Palestinian columnist. He can be reached at

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