Iranian president sparks outrage with university visit

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provoked the wrath of New Yorkers as he arrived in the city to make a speech at a prestigious Ivy League university today.

As the president of New York’s Columbia University said the high-profile visit showed “America at its best”, others lambasted the Iranian leader as an evil hatemonger and madman.

Mr Ahmadinejad, who has openly called for the destruction of Israel and questioned the scale of the Holocaust, angered New Yorkers last week when he announced plans to visit Ground Zero.

He backed down when the city’s officials vetoed the trip citing security reasons.

His speech today will come ahead of his annual address to the international community at the UN General Assembly tomorrow.

Speaking to a crowd of protesters outside the university, New York state assemblyman Dov Hikind said: “I call on New Yorkers to make the life of Ahmadinejad, as he is in New York, miserable.”

Mr Hikind said he was “actively encouraging civil disobedience”, but not violence.

He went on: “There is no excuse to invite this madman, this little Hitler.

“This is immoral. This is outrageous. This is sick.”

Around 100 demonstrators gathered early today carrying banners stating: “Don’t give a platform to hate,” and denouncing Mr Ahmadinejad as a “Hitler wannabe” and a Holocaust denier.

Others carried enlarged posters of the Daily News weekend front page with the words “Go to Hell!” around an image of the president’s face.

The president’s trip comes at a low point in relations between Iran and the United States, which have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1979.

In its editorial headlined “Monstrous idiocy” today, the New York Daily News attacked Columbia University’s dean John Coatsworth, the acting head of the university’s School of International and Public Affairs, who said he would also have invited Adolf Hitler to speak if he had the chance.

“Coatsworth’s invitation to the Iranian president was a gross abuse of academic freedom that he has been attempting mightily and futilely to defend,” the editorial read.

“But there is no way, at least in civilised society, to defend Coatsworth’s expressed openness to granting a forum to a man who was the world’s most determined, most efficient mass murderer.”

The editorial called it an “insult to America’s character”.

Earlier, Lee Bollinger, Columbia University’s president, described the visit as “America at its best”.

“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 naivete about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas,” he said.

“It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honour the dishonourable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

“That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here.

“To commit oneself to a life – and a civil society – prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words.

“That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.”

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