Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2007
Issue No. 866
Focus
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hamid Dabashi

Of banality and burden

Hamid Dabashi comments on a meeting of minds

Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator . . . . I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better. -- President Lee C. Bollinger of Columbia University addressing his guest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran (24 September 2007)

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
-- Rudyard Kipling, "White Man's Burden" (1899)

The only reason that the world at large should care about the contankerous exchange between an irresponsible and sensationalist president of a beleaguered and increasingly illegitimate Islamic Republic and the racist president of an Ivy League university in the United States is that in the brief encounter between the two dwells the symptoms of a much more frightful malignancy now afflicting our globe--the fact and phenomenon of an Empire least equipped to rule the world and yet flaunting a vulgar audacity to issue pronouncements about its ills and afflictions--at once creating, promoting, and supporting undemocratic regimes in its domain of influence (from the Saudis to the Taliban) and yet unable to deal with their criminal consequences, while at the same time having the audacity to give itself the moral authority to be the arbiter of truth in the world, carrying the white man's burden to set the course of history aright.

The forum to which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was invited for a talk at Columbia University in New York, where I teach, is one of the inanest ideas of President Lee Bollinger--something called "World Leaders Forum," to which he invites the most notorious warmongers around the globe (among the most innocuous and irrelevant leaders), so they will have yet another forum to reiterate their nonsense. The world suffers the terrorizing predicament that it does precisely because these so-called leaders have altogether too many forums on which to talk, and some of them the inordinate power and the necessary wherewithal to put to action the nonsense they thus speak. They should never be invited to any university, and if they are they are to be sat down and talked to and not to listen to--they have scarce anything important, new, or significant to say.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to come to Columbia University and address our community on 24 September 2007. Neither I nor any one of my colleagues in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), the principle home of Iranian Studies, knew, was consulted, or approved of this visit. In his opening statement, President Bollinger said, "This [Ahmadinejad's visit] is just one of many events on Iran that will run throughout this academic year, all to help us better understand this critical and complex nation in today's geopolitics." So far as my colleagues and I in MEALAC know, we are party to no such "project" in understanding Iran, outside our regular teaching and scholarly projects reading and writing on diverse aspects of Iranian history, politics, culture, arts, cinema, literature, and geopolitics none of which is of any immediate use to the US military or the neocon chicaneries trying "to understand" Iran. In fact, ever since Lee Bollinger has become our president, our department has been systematically sidestepped and undermined precisely because we do not cater to such self-promoting and megalomaniac projects.

Ahmadinejad's September 2007 visit to Columbia was overwhelmingly dominated not by the inanities that he repeated in his talk, nor indeed by the horrors the Islamic Republic has perpetrated against its own citizens over the last three decades, but in fact by the rude and racist remarks that Lee Bollinger made when introducing him. In his own remarks, Ahmadinejad said nothing outside his regular nonsense--yet again effectively denying the suffering of millions of human beings and their descendents during and in the aftermath of the Jewish Holocaust, denying that there are even homosexuals in Iran, denying Iranian women are the second rate citizens in their own country. No amount of footnotes or linguistic, political, or cultural fine- tuning can excuse these inexcusable obscenities. No degree of solidarity with the Palestinian cause can ever translate into denying or belittling the monumental suffering of other human beings viciously murdered in their millions by the German Nazis in European concentration camps in the course of the Jewish Holocaust. No cultural explication of the difference between the varieties of homoeroticism in Iran and outside Iran can explain the fact that non-heterosexual practices in the Islamic Republic are severely repressed, denigrated, or even punished. No amount of cultural finagling can change the fact that Iranian women live in a legally sanctioned gender apartheid system. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the representative of a brutal theocracy that has systematically and consistently repressed, imprisoned, and even cold-bloodedly murdered those opposed to its very theocratic foundations. Having said all of this, I must immediately add that only Lee Bollinger's mind-numbing racism when introducing Ahmadinejad could have made the demagogue look like the innocent bystander in a self- promotional circus.

A close reading of Bollinger's statement when introducing Ahmadinejad is today the closest text analogue of what exactly happens when the legitimate criticism of the atrocities of the Islamic Republic quite imperceptively degenerates into the propaganda warfare against a soverign nation state, to be waged by the self-proclaimed moral authority of the United States, and from there further mutating into the oldest racist assumptions of the white man's burden to civilize the world. Reading Bollinger's statement is to witness a closely-knit packing of assertions of fact about the horrors of the Islamic Republic, combined with the most ridiculous clichés of the neocon propaganda machinery, wrapped in the missionary position of a white racist supremacist carrying the heavy burden of civilizing the world.

From the very first sentences of his speech, Bollinger went on a rampage against his guest: "It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible." The man sitting in front of Lee Bollinger, the elected president of a soverign nation state, had not yet open his mouth and he was already branded deplorable and dishonorable. It makes no difference how abominable some of Ahmadinejad's utterances may have been or how massively documented the human rights abuses of the Islamic Republic are. Ahmadinejad was sitting there as the elected official of a soverign nation state. Bollinger would not dare call any of the monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Morocco (all allies of the United States and all medieval potentates ruling undemocratically), or above them all call George W. Bush anything resembling what he did Ahmadinejad--and yet Bush is now chiefly responsible for the unconscionable poverty of millions of Americans, most of them children, as well as for an illegal invasion of a soverign nation- state that has caused the death of almost one million Iraqis, maiming of millions more, and turning four other million Iraqis into refugees. Bollinger would never dare calling Ehud Olmert anything remotely resembling what he did Ahmadinejad, and Olmert is chiefly responsible for destroying the entire infrastructure of a sovereign nation state (Lebanon), killing thousands of innocent civilians, and adding even more refugees to the already deplorable condition of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This is to say nothing about the apartheid state of Israel continuing to maim and murder even more Palestinians and stealing even more of their homeland on a daily basis. If Ahmadinejad has uttered a nonsense about "wiping Israel off the face of the map," Bush and Olmert have actually wiped the economic, moral, and political infrastructures of three nations (Iraqis, Lebanese, and Palestinians) off the face of the map--and yet Bollinger will roll the red carpet for them if they ever deigned to grace our campus.

Further prejudicing his audience, Bollinger solemnly declared, "to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day, I say on behalf of all of us we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it." But even this was not enough: "To be clear on another matter," Bollinger added, "this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any "rights" of the speaker but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves." "Unfortunately," Michael Ignatieff once famously said, "terrorists even have human rights too." But not according to Lee Bollinger. The President of the Islamic Republic sitting in front of him had no such rights. This makes Bollinger indistinguishable from Ahmadinejad who presides over an Islamic Republic that denies its citizens such rights, if not on practical then certainly at theoretical level. The key question that someone should have asked Bollinger (but no one did) is that do we have those rights on our own campus at Columbia--can we criticize whomever we want (Israel for example) as we deem necessary, without immediate and enduring repercussions? Nothing short of the devil incarnate, the Christian Fundamentalist in Bollinger thought, was sitting in front of him: "It is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament." What is the difference between that sentiment and the idea of an "Axis of Evil," as promoted by George W. Bush? What is the point of inviting a head of state, no matter how much his ideas and practices are deplorable, to heap racist insult upon him and by extension the people that he may even misrepresent?

When Bollinger finished with his preamble and turned his attention directly to Ahmadinejad, we begin to witness the precise manner in which the legitimate criticism of the Islamic Republic invariably and ever so imperceptively degenerates into an illegitimate propaganda manifesto for the missionary position of the United States to save the world and for its client Jewish state of Israel to do its share in this civilizing mission. Bollinger began his jeremiad against Ahmadinejad with the senseless and unconscionable arrest of scholars like Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, referred to reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of the persecution and even execution of political activists, pointed out the wider range of the persecution of students and scholars opposing various policies of the Islamic Republic, identified Iranian women in particular, the Baha'is, as well as homosexuals, as the victims of Ahmadinejad's policies, and then specifically pinpointed the letter that Akbar Ganji, a leading Iranian dissident, has written to the UN Secretary General, and had it signed by over 300 non-Iranian public intellectuals, writers and Nobel Laureates, expressing concern about civil liberties in Iran. To top it all then, Bollinger added, "Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

Now, where did that come from? Almost everything that Bollinger has said is true, in fact truisms. Even worse is true about the Islamic Republic, and nothing that Bollinger said is hidden to anyone in or out of Iran. For over a decade, a massive, grassroots, Reform Movement inside Iran has shaken the degenerate and corrupt foundation of the clerical rule to its foundations. Thousands have been killed, more have been imprisoned, many more forced into exile. Iranians in and out of their homeland, as well as anyone else slightly interested in their fate, have known these and some have fought valiantly to bring them to world attention. So what is the point of repeating them here by Bollinger--that Ahmadinejad is a "petty and cruel dictator"? It is a sign of sheer illiteracy in basic politics to confuse an elected President (no matter how outrageous his politics or how retrograde the republic he represents) with a "dictator," who is an unelected monarch or potentate who rules whimsically and as he pleases. I am against Ahmadinejad and the system over which he presides, but he is an elected official, not a "dictator" in the technical sense of the term. The republic that he represents is a theocracy, but that theocracy works through a very complicated division of power in various official and unofficial, elected and unelected, democratic and despotic, centers of gravity, of which Bollinger seems to know next to nothing.

Just a few years after the CIA sponsored a vicious, malicious, and criminal coup to topple the democratically elected premiership of Mohammad Mussadiq in 1953, Columbia University, to its everlasting shame, gave the real Iranian dictator, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, an honorary degree. Ahmadinejad is a weak demagogue, today the elected president of a republic, tomorrow forgotten by the history of his own homeland. But as a signpost in the continued saga of millions of Iranians fighting over decades and centuries for the cause of democracy in their country he is infinitely (infinitely) superior to that degenerate Shah whose cruel monarchy was the predicate of this even more degenerate band of mullahs who have stolen the hopes and aspiration of an entire people. Did this people in their entirety have to wait for this upstart career opportunist to come and tell them that centuries of their struggles for freedom and democracy has been futile and useless? Not really. Bollinger may have secured an infamous place for himself today, but he has brought my university unsurpassed shame with his "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated" remarks about the history and political struggles of a people I proudly call mine, and of which, judging by his pestiferous and illiterate statement he knows absolutely nothing.

The real point of Bollinger in presiding over this charade, however, gradually emerges after these futile and entirely useless references to all sorts of human rights abuses in Iran--abuses that Iranians themselves are both its immediate victims and at the forefront of fighting against them. Bollinger though raises them for an entirely different objective. He soon turns to Ahmadinejad's inexcusable, scandalous, and simply outrageous remarks about the Holocaust. Bollinger's scolding Ahmadinejad's outrageous statements about the Jewish Holocaust, however, points to something entirety different. He wants to use it to drum up unconditional support for his beloved Israel.

Referring to an inane conference that Ahmadinejad's government had organized on the Holocaust, Bollinger declared, "For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated." Now who exactly is this "illiterate and ignorant" refers to? Iranians, right? All of them, the entire nation? This is by far the most shamelessly racist comment of Bollinger in a statement replete with racism, for here "the illiterate and ignorant" categorically refers to some 75 million Iranians in whose country this conference was organized (entirely against their will)--an attribution made to differ markedly from Ahmadinejad's having "come here" to the United States, to Columbia University, where not just Ahmadinejad but in fact those 75 million people that he (whether we like it or not) represents are told to be "illiterate and ignorant." "They do not exist," the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir used to say about Palestinians. She denied the very existence of an entire nation. Would Bollinger ever dare to call Israelis in their entirety "illiterate and ignorant"?

Bollinger's easy targeting of Ahmadinejad's inanity about Holocaust soon moves into his comment about Israel and its right to exist. Here Bollinger is in his home territory defending the cause of the Jewish state not just against the stupidity of Ahmadinejad's statements but against all other legitimate criticisms of the colonial settlement as well. "Columbia," Bollinger solemnly declared, "has over 800 alumni currently living in Israel. As an institution we have deep ties with our colleagues there. I personally have spoken out in the most forceful terms against proposals to boycott Israeli scholars and universities, saying that such boycotts might as well include Columbia. More than 400 college and university presidents in this country have joined in that statement. My question, then, is: Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?" Really? Now this is all fine and dandy for New York Zionist diehards to hear and applaud. But what about the rest of us? Where is the representation of the fact that scores of us at Columbia, faculty and students, are also signatories to statements boycotting the academic institution of the Jewish apartheid state? Where is the acknowledgment of the fact that even more of us have signed a petition calling on Columbia to divest from companies selling arms to the Jewish state? Where is the acknowledgement of the fact that Lee Bollinger killed our petition before we even had a chance to articulate it? He is of course entitled to be the born again Zionist that he is. But where is his responsibility in representing all of us at Columbia with views radically different from his? Is he only the president of diehard Zionists at Columbia, or the president of the rest of us as well?

By this point, Bollinger has moved completely into the neocon chicanery of the Bush administration and staged his nauseating show as if he could care less about human rights of Iranians at large, whom he considers categorically to be "ignorant and illiterate." "According to reports by the Council on Foreign Relations," he says, "it's well documented that Iran is a state sponsor of terror that funds such violent group as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran helped organize in the 1980s, the Palestinian Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad." Really? Hezbollah and Hamas are the legitimate grassroots organizations of two nations, Lebanon and Palestine, and no matter for what abusive reasons the Islamic Republic is pretending to side with them to further its own loss of legitimacy at home, they remain legitimate political organizations defending the sovereignty of their respective nations. Is this president of a university or the propaganda officer of American neocons? What exactly is the role of a university president--simply to reiterate the most worn out clichés of a belligerent and pestiferous culture of militarism and global domination?

"Your government," Bollinger further added, "is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming, and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces." Really? What are the Americans doing in Iraq in the first place, having caused the maiming and murdering of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and making millions more homeless, and then these Iraqis need to hear from Bollinger that the Islamic Republic is undermining the US presence in their homeland? If the Islamic Republic has no business doing anything in Iraq, and it does not, then what in sanity's name is the US doing illegally and immorally occupying that soverign nation state--and where exactly is General Bollinger's condemnation of that atrocious act of criminal imperialism?

"Why," Bollinger asked forcefully from Ahmadinejad, "do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and civil society in the region?" Evidence? "In a briefing before the National Press Club earlier this month," President Bollinger stated, "General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to 'a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.'" Is this the president of a university talking or a spokesman for the Bush administration's shameless refusal to accept responsibility for the mayhem it has caused in Iraq? If the Islamic Republic is to be reprimanded for smuggling arms to Iraq to give to its allies, and it must, then what should be said and done about the United States and it amassing of the army of Attila the Hun in Iraq, or about the gargantuan military aid the US gives to Israel on an annual and regular basis (while millions of Americans live under the poverty line, and their homes, their schools, their medical care and livelihood and sheer dignity are in ruins)? Are we allowed to ask this question from Bollinger, and does he have the "intellectual courage" to answer them?

Finally, Bollinger took Ahmadinejad to task about the Iranian nuclear program. "You continue to defy this world body by claiming a right to develop peaceful nuclear power, but this hardly withstands scrutiny when you continue to issue military threats to neighbors." And where is the reference to the massive Israeli nuclear stockpile in this splendid analysis of the geopolitics of the region? Does Bollinger himself have "the intellectual courage" that he thought Ahmadinejad lacked in answering these questions?

And the finale: "I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better." I have no doubt that Lee Bollinger's speech in front of Ahmadinejad and thousands of our students on Columbia campus in September 2007, particularly this last line, will go down in history as one of the most racist documents at the height of American renewed claim to world hegemony, a document that we will have to go all the way back to the time of Rudyard Kipling and his infamous poem, "The White Man's Burden" (1899), originally composed on the occasion of the US conquest of the Philippines and other adjacent areas. The fact that this speech was delivered at the same university where Edward Said used to teach, where Gayatri Spivak is now a University Professor, and where its current Vice President, Nicholas Dirks, has assembled by far the most distinguished array of postcolonial and subaltern theorists and scholars all go to show that the political import of these bureaucratic functionaries called "university presidents" is entirely severed from any organic link to the actual content of these institutions and has assumed a political reality sui generis, geared entirely to the apparatus of power in the United States. Is that also the reason that Bollinger can utter the most racist statements about an entire people and get away with it, without a single voice of dissent from my colleagues? Criticizing President George W. Bush on our campus is quite rampant and easy. Because on our campus criticizing Bush is a mere exercise in futility, for there the US president is an easy target and a mere abstraction. It does not cost anyone anything to criticize him. You even cash a certain amount of liberal credentials for doing so. But criticizing President Bollinger, who is no abstraction on our campus, is a whole different kettle of fish. It costs you things, particularly in these renewed days of academic and civil McCarthyism in the United States.

But by far the most atrocious aspect of Bollinger's statement is that because of the slanted relation of power it flaunts it ipso facto shifts the center of gravity of contemporary Iranian political predicament away from Iran and Iranians themselves and places it in the self-righteous domain of a white man and his civilizing mission. It is precisely the same colonial attitude that is perpetrated in the statement written by Akbar Ganji and circulated for signatures among exclusively non-Iranian signatories. Not a single Iranian was allowed, even if he or she insisted, to sign that statement. Akbar Ganji's deeply colonized mind, denying Iranians themselves the right and responsibility to have a say in their national destiny, tallies perfectly well with Bollinger's deeply racist mind to presume that he is telling Iranians something they do not know. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Lee Bollinger's statement is the appearance of the name of Akbar Ganji in it, for in that single reference Lee Bollinger and Akbar Ganji appear as the two-sides of the same colonial coin that denies nations agency and assigns to white men the authority and audacity to civilize the world. Is it even conceivable for Gandhi to launch his movement to liberate India and systematically deny Indians a say in the affairs of their homeland, or for Mandela to write a statement on behalf of civil liberties in South Africa and disallow South Africans to sign it? This is precisely what Akbar Ganji has done, and that is precisely the reason why he is so easily incorporated into Bollinger's racist assumption that he has to bear the heavy burden of liberating Iran and civilizing the world. To avoid that trap, it is long overdue that people like Akbar Ganji look at movements led by Gandhi and Mandela as example of their struggle, rather than come to the United States, go on a Shi'i pilgrimage of collecting white talismans of names he considers worthy of defending the cause of liberty in his homeland. The circus around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia in September 2007 has now been packed and removed. Both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even more so Lee Bollinger are irrelevant footnotes in the long and noble struggle of people around the world for a pride of place. What remains are the measures of truth and agency we hold inviolable and sacred when it comes to nations and their prolonged struggle for dignity and freedom.

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