Dialogue with the deaf

I'VE never been an ardent admirer of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

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Published: Sat 29 Sep 2007, 8:34 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:55 PM

There was a time when I had watched with great interest his dramatic transformation from a little known academician-politician into the leader of one of the biggest and most important countries in the Middle East.

He looked like someone who could lead his nation through these trying times, to attain its deserved status as a great Muslim civilisation with rich energy and human resources.

Those hopes turned to disappointment as the Iran leader got himself entangled in the web of rhetoric he weaved around himself.

Yet watching Ahmadinejad face his hostile audience at Columbia University and field questions with a grace and dignity seldom seen these days, one was filled with unrestrained admiration for the man.

There he was —a simple, ordinary guy pitted against the collective might of the American empire with its powerful global alliances, a myriad think tanks and mighty media establishment.

It was a contest of David and Goliath. Ahmadinejad, a true underdog, was no match to what he faced in the land of the free.

It was a nice welcome they had organised for him. Columbia boss, Lee C. Bollinger, who had acted as if he had to go through fire and had put his entire career on the line for inviting Ahmadinejad to speak at the university, was very thoughtful in his welcome speech.

He said, “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

Ahmadinejad, seated 10 feet away from him on the stage, continued to smile. The anti-Ahmadinejad portion of the audience, about 70 per cent of it, jeered and booed.

Bollinger praised himself and Columbia to glory for the magnanimity of inviting the Iranian president.

He said it was “well documented” that Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism, accused Iran of fighting a proxy war against the United States in Iraq and questioned why Iran has refused “to adhere to the international standards” of disclosure for its nuclear programme.

“I doubt,” Bollinger concluded, “that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions.” So much for the fabled traditions of tolerance of Columbia and America.

If this is the face of liberal and tolerant America, I wonder how they would treat a Middle Eastern or Muslim leader in the US South, the heartland of middle America!

Is this how the Land of the Free treats its guests? Is this how you deal with the elected leader of a country with 3,000 years of history? Ahmadinejad was not there only as the president of Iran but as a representative of the Muslim world. This is perhaps why they rolled out the red carpet for him.

First, Columbia president took almost half hour of the time for the guest to attack him, reading from a script that would have been the envy of the 'fair and balanced' Fox News or Dick Cheney's office in the White House.

It was like Spanish Inquisition and Ahmedienjad was tied there at stake to be burnt down as a heretic. But no, the Church did not read you the charges before they set you on fire.

It was more like a kangaroo court they show in Hollywood westerns dispensing summary justice without fussing too much about the innocence of the accused or fair play. And the leader of an immensely proud and cultured country was put on trial as if he was a petty thug captured from America's badlands.

This was the same when Ahmadinejad was interviewed by the CBS in Iran a day before his departure for the US. So much so the humiliating grilling by Scot Pelley forced the cool as cucumber Ahmadinejad to complain: “You are like a CIA investigator. This is not Guantanamo Bay. This is not a Baghdad prison! This is not Abu Ghraib! This is Iran. I'm the President of this country!”

To all the humiliation he was subjected to, Ahmadinejad came up with a response that would have made Gandhi proud: “In Iran, we treat our guests with more respect! The text read by the dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to the knowledge and intelligence of the audience here. In a university environment, we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the truth is eventually revealed.”

This harassment was not limited to Columbia. Outside the university, Zionist groups and other rednecks picketed comparing the guest to Hitler. And big names of the US political and media establishment vied with each other to condemn Iran leader as Satan himself. On the day of Ahmadinejad's arrival, the New York Daily News screamed: THE EVIL HAS LANDED!

Another tabloid warned New Yorkers: IRANIAN MADMAN WALKS AMONG US.

Bill O'Reilly of Fox News complained to his viewers about the evils of 'free speech' in the US.

On the other hand, presidential pretenders —from Hillary Clinton to Barak Obama and Rudy Giuliani to Mitt Romney —joined hands to take on the man from Iran condemning him as the evil incarnate himself. This is a telling comment on the extent of the Zionist lobby's influence on the US establishment.

Given the overwhelming nature of this witch-hunt, it's a miracle that Ahmadinejad kept his cool throughout the visit. He refused to be cowed down and bullied by the welcome his hosts had so graciously arranged for him.

He not only managed to say his piece at Columbia without moving an inch from his convictions, he took his battle to the United Nations.

The Iran leader responded to all the accusations hurled at him with utmost dignity. In fact, he put his hosts on the defensive once again by exposing the continuing dual standards on issues like Palestine, Iraq and nuclear proliferation.

It was a performance at once both defiant and conciliatory. He insisted: “If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, who are you to question other people who just want nuclear power.” On the other hand, he said he wanted to visit Ground Zero to show his respect for 9/11 victims.

Ahmadinejad's passage to America only goes to show the impossible gulf that exists between the Muslim world and the West, especially United States.

Given the lethal mix of ignorance, prejudice and plain hostility that exists in the US and much of the West vis-à-vis Islam and Muslim world, even the mere thought of bridging this divide is daunting.

Yet we are left with no choice. If the Arabs and Muslims are keen to bridge this divide —as they indeed are —they must do everything possible to reach out to the other side. This is the only way to end the growing confrontation between the Muslim world and the West.

I agree this cannot be a one-sided affair. This cannot succeed unless our friends in the West do their bit. And this begins with an honest appraisal of the factors that divide us in the first place. That said, we can't claim we've done our best to clear the cobwebs that distort our image or the fair image of our faith.

How many Muslim leaders and heads of state have tried to engage the West in a meaningful dialogue?

Which is why one must commend Ahmadinejad's courage and persistence. This is his third visit to the US in the past two years. And every time he has tried to reach out to the other side.

Okay, you may not agree with his views. But give the man his due, even if his attempts to break the ice with the West haven't been exactly successful. At least, by taking his case to the intellectual heartland of West, he has made them sit up and take notice.

The Iran leader has managed to present the Muslim viewpoint where it matters the most. He left his hosts squirming in their seats by asking: “Even if the Holocaust happened, why should the Palestinians pay the price for the sins committed by Europe?”

Ahmadinejad made the Americans think —for a change (just kidding!). But seriously, in a region where most leaders are cloistered away in their palaces, remote and distant from their own people, here is someone who has made use of every available opportunity to reach out and present his side of the story.

This is the way to go if the Muslim world wants to end its isolation. Even if this looks like a dialogue with the deaf for now!

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. Write to him at aijazsyed@khaleejtimes.com

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