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The Circus at Columbia University

By Kam Zarrabi, Intellectual Discourse


To avoid a potential misinterpretation of my personal views or a misunderstanding of my position regarding the currents of sociopolitical affairs in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I would like to begin by clarifying the fog that has been hanging over my articles and lectures during the past two-dozen years.

I am not and have never been and do not intend to be an apologist for the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly the internal policies that regulate the social affairs of the nation to the degree that it does. At the same time, residing rather comfortably here in Southern California and not being an actual resident of Iran, I find it rather presumptuous to allow myself to sit in judgment as to how the people of Iran, the great majority of whom are of post-Revolution age, should live their lives. They may not, and are not obligated to, share in my views and preferences that are the products of my principally Western oriented habits and cultural orientation as a seventy-some years old former Iranian.

This is the reason why, when confronted with the expressions of outrage, for example, by the Iranian women's rights activists as to the dress code restrictions, I cannot help but wonder whose freedom is it that is being violated, and to what degree. In a nation of over 75,000,000 people, more than one-half women, how many women aspire to dress more freely or even provocatively as they do in Western societies? Or, what percentage of the population would actually approve of non-restricted dress policy altogether?

Another related question: When, I don't remember which city, perhaps it was Atlanta, decided to prohibit low-slung shorts for young men and shirts that exposed women's midsection, where were the same advocates of freedom to cry out for such violations of human rights right here in the United States?

Similarly, we do not look favorably for women in America or most Western societies to walk around topless even in sweltering summer days, while we do allow men to do so. Why do our societies impose such restrictions on women? Why don't we have communal, genderless public toilets here? I am sure there are many advocates for lifting such bans here, but the system is somehow resistant to such freedoms!

Personally, I wouldn't have any problem with women dressing as they please, including covered from head to toe, walking around topless or even stark naked. I, then, would exercise my freedom of choice as to which ones I'd look at and which I would avoid! For some peculiar reason, however, I wouldn't like to have my wife, daughters or sisters to dress too provocatively.

I am also having a problem with those, especially among our younger Iranians, who believe showing their fellow Iranians' taste and affinity for the Western trends in dress code, makeup or social demeanor is a sign of cultural progress, rather than as an expression of envy or worse, as what children or underlings do when begging for acceptance by their "superiors". I wonder why they do not realize that out-smoking, out-drinking, out-rapping, out-rock-and-rolling and mimicking their Western counterparts simply make them appear more culturally immature and traditionally lacking.

That is so reminiscent of those days of our ill-perceived Royal glory, when annual art festivals were held near Shiraz, where the most outrageously avansgarde or bizarre Western "art" was staged for the benefit of the highly exclusive invited audiences of pretentious, pseudo aristocrats in front of bewildered ordinary folks, those "other" Iranians, the disregarded 98 percent, who were rightfully wondering what the hell was going on.

Those were the days when the uppity new-rich celebrated the Western New Years' Eve (more "fashionable" then than even the traditional Nowrooz), at the Sheraton Hotel, which they pronounced "Shrayton" to sound more "foreign", while sipping rare twenty-year-old Scotch whisky mixed with "Kooka", or expensive Dom Perignon blended with imported orange juice.  

I suppose I am just too damned old fashioned to understand and appreciate the "mod-ren" ways!

Don't get me wrong; I am not a religious person at all, even though I respect and understand all religions and, in fact, conduct lectures in comparative religion without being biased toward any faith of my own and, consequently, condescending toward others.

My views of matters of faith and religion are reflected and elaborated in my book, Necessary Illusion; Looking Through the Kaleidoscope of Existence. I think the title of the book tells it all.

I believe that faith in some supernatural overarching concept was an unavoidable byproduct of human intellect, without which mankind's cultural evolution would have taken a completely different course, perhaps toward an early demise in its infancy.

As far as freedoms of expression and exchange of ideas are concerned, I am all for such liberal freedoms, as long as such rights do not transgress against the unwary and are not aimed at overt or subliminal indoctrination of the less well-equipped masses.

Just look at the mass media right here in the United States, where the majority of people still continue to rely on television, newspapers and radio for information about the affairs of the world. Had it not been for the Internet, today's small minority that has access to the international news would not even exist.

The consensus among the American public is that Iran is, in fact, the number-one state sponsor of international terrorism, that the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas are terrorist organizations, that Iran is intent on making atomic bombs, that Ahmadinejad is a crazed zealot who intends to destroy Israel, attack Europe and America and establish a global Shi'a Caliphate with himself standing alongside the Mahdi! Many of the same folks believe that the real Messiah is none other than George W. Bush; hah!

The only debate, then, is about what might be the best way to contain or eliminate this threat. Just listen to the candidates for the next presidential elections from both parties addressing this issue. Only one member in each party seems to reject these ideas as distortions of realities and political propaganda against a "designated enemy", which in truth Iran is, a designated enemy.

As we can clearly see, even in a society that prides itself as the champion of freedom and democracy, true freedom of expression is a rare commodity simply because any meaningful expression of opinion is contingent upon a sufficient knowledge of the facts, not disinformation propagated by centers of manipulation and indoctrination.

This brings me to the introductory address by the Columbia President, Mr. Bollinger, before the Iranian President, Ahmadinejad, was introduced as the guest speaker. His last comments said it all: "We do not have access to the levers of power, we cannot make war or peace, we can only make minds, and to do this, we must have the most fulsome freedom of inquiry."

What, Mr. Bollinger; you can only make minds? Was this a Freudian slip or did he really mean that the job of the university in his opinion is to "make minds"? I am inclined to think that his intention must have been to say "to nurture minds" rather than "to make minds". However, his highly prejudicial, unethical and undiplomatic assault on his invited speaker spoke volumes about Mr. Bollinger's own lack of intellectual integrity and, indeed, cowardice. His own mind was obviously made for him!

If his outrageously rude behavior was in response to the demands by Columbia University's benefactors that support what, as Bollinger said, "[I]s the world center of Jewish studies...and now in partnership with the Institute of Holocaust Studies." and also to protect his own job, he exhibited a level of moral depravity and cowardice truly unbecoming any academic, let alone a university president. If, on the other hand, those remarks were his own and reflecting his personal feelings, shame on a system where a culturally handicapped political ignoramus like Bollinger could rise to such academic heights.

Perhaps Mr. Bollinger could next bestow an honorary doctorate at Columbia on similarly "brilliant" commentators such as the media pit bulls, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Dennis Prager or even the psychopath, Michael Savage! That would really make Columbia shine.

Now, we do have to admit that it took a lot of courage for President Ahmadinejad to accept the challenge of appearing in front of clearly hostile audiences and responding to loaded questions by sarcastic and antagonistic interviewers.

I don't really know whether Mr. Ahmadinejad has any media consultants or publicity advisors familiar with the subtleties and nuances that are elementally vital in addressing the American audiences in order to impart the desired impression. His female translator during his Columbia address was less than capable and compelling. She sounded as though the speaker was struggling to plead his case, rather than addressing his audience confidently and authoritatively.

There were many times when Mr. Ahmadinejad could have responded more effectively to some of the deliberately loaded questions. For example, when Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes program demanded a yes or no response to whether the Iranian President would agree to not attack Israel during the remainder of his term as Iran's President, rather than beating around the bush and resorting to irrelevant rhetoric, he could have answered more proactively. He should have turned the table around by responding, "Tell me, how would President Bush respond by a yes or no answer if you were to ask him if he now would officially admit that his intention in the Middle East is to control our oil in the guise of promoting democracy and fighting terrorism?"

Before his interview with Charley Rose on September 26, Mr. Rose prepared the viewers by establishing certain allegations as well-known facts. "He is" he starts, "as you know, a very controversial figure, because he refused to acknowledge the Holocaust, the right of Israel to exist......." Later, he says about his guest that "[H]e does not feel compelled to respond to the questions as posed."

Well, what a surprise; Ahmadinejad does not feel compelled to respond to loaded, accusatory questions as posed! Did you ever stop beating on your wife, Charley Rose? Answer yes or no!

I am sure the international impressions regarding President Ahmadinejad's speeches at the UN and Columbia University, etc., were not the same as the reaction by our own American media; and that is understandable. The question is, why wasn't the man who represented Iran in these appearances better prepared or equipped to give a more appropriate account of Iran's grievances?

Could it be that Mr. Ahmadinejad is so confident about his and his nation's invulnerability that the need for  more effective public relations techniques is not deemed necessary.

I believe this visit was the best and perhaps the last opportunity for the Iranian President to make a case for Iran in front of the nation that is being driven by the media propaganda machine to wrongly perceive Iran as a threat to its very security. What would it take to have speech writers who are familiar with the American culture and mindset? What would it take to employ more capable contemporaneous translators who not only have good command of both languages, but have the presence the voice and the delivery that better reflect the intended tone of the address?

Quite frankly, fully expecting the accusatory language and the sarcastic tone of the interviewers, I was very disappointed that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not better rehearsed to respond accordingly. As many heads of state or dignitaries do, he had the right to ask to see and pre-approve the questions put to him in advance of the broadcasts.

He also made some inexcusable mistakes. One example was declaring that there are no homosexuals in Iran. He should have also elaborated more on the complaints regarding women's rights rather than briefly brushing the issue aside.

Another was in responding to the accusation that Iran is sending weapons to Iraq that "kill Americans", an allegation that would legally justify the White House to launch a military attack on Iran even without the approval of the House or the Senate - a Joe Lieberman trick. Ahmadinejad was, of course, quite right in countering that American arms and support for insurgencies have been and are causing deaths and destruction in Iran. That assertion, however, was tantamount to admitting that Iran is officially arming the Iraqi insurgents and providing them with weapons aimed at killing Americans. In other words, he played right into the hands of the accusers! The proper answer would have been, "If such weapons are found in the hands of the Iraqi insurgents, the Iranian government or the military is not responsible. Look at all the American arms that we find in the hands of insurgents and saboteurs that kill Iranians in Iran. Would you say, then, that the United States is officially involved in that?"

This is a war of words for the time being. An opportunity, I believe, was missed during the Iranian President's visit to America to take advantage of the rising opposition to war and the potential to gain the sympathy of the dissident media voices here that need more fodder to vocalize against the warmongers in Washington.

Yes, we hear words of praise for Ahmadinejad's performance in the "lion's den" coming from the Iranian press and some here in the United States. While having the guts to enter the den of the lion and to confront the kind of hostile treatment that we observed is quite admirable, the president of a sovereign nation the size and importance of Iran, facing difficult times and confronted by real threats against its very existence, should not be viewed as a performer in a traveling circus.

Finally, I firmly believe that there are so many shared interests between Iran and the United States that could easily overshadow the points of departure and conflict promoted by special interest groups and lobbies that insist on achieving their short-sighted gains at the expense of both nations.

It was irritating but of no surprise to me that questions put to Ahmadinejad during his interviews dealt to an inordinate extent with the Israeli issues rather than Iran/US relations and potential cooperation. Rather than respond to such questions, I wished Mr. Ahmadinejad had the presence of mind to force the dialog back onto proper tracks.

I was actually happy that the interview arranged with Christian Amanpour of CNN was cancelled. After all, what was she going to address that Mr. Ahmadinejad had not already confronted in his other interviews? Clearly more of the same. But this time, coming from a journalist with an Iranian background and supposedly with better interpretive prowess, it would give the same exact menu the appearance of more flavor and authenticity.

About the author: Kam Zarrabi is the author of In Zarathushtra's Shadow and Necessary Illusion. Please visit for ordering.

... Payvand News - 9/28/07 ... --

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