An open door for critic, a victory for free speech

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2007, 12:00am

Few figures are as hated in American eyes as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Lambasted as a backer of terrorism, a Holocaust denier and a supporter of Iraqi insurgents, he has reportedly called for Israel to be 'wiped off the map' and fronts a government accused of grossly violating human rights while also seeking nuclear weapons.

Naturally, when word spread that Mr Ahmadinejad was attending the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York and planned outside engagements, heated debate erupted among politicians and community leaders in the United States. Many questioned whether his request to visit the site of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should be granted. The possibility of a man seen as a terrorism sympathiser standing on such sacred ground was disconcerting, to say the least. Others questioned the wisdom of Columbia University president Lee Bollinger for inviting him to speak to staff and students. Providing a platform for his views, on American soil, seemed unnecessary when his opinions are readily available through the media. In the end, the visit was denied on security grounds but the speech went ahead in spite of the criticism. There can be no better proof that, despite claims to the contrary in the post-September 11 era, free speech is alive and well in the US.

Since September 11, though, the administration of US President George W. Bush has been implementing legislation that impinges on some of the freedoms Americans enjoy. As blatantly, the US has been trampling on international law in the name of its 'war on terror'.

The criticism appears to have made some impact. While the voices opposing Mr Ahmadinejad's presence in the US were vociferous, they were ignored by authorities in the name of free speech.

The Iranian president may, understandably, have been a little surprised at the hostile reception he received from his host, Mr Bollinger, who described him as bearing the hallmarks of a 'petty and cruel dictator'. But Mr Ahmadinejad was able to get his message across. Americans got to see, hear and question the views of a figure reviled by their government - the leader of a nation labelled as part of an 'axis of evil'. They were able to determine for themselves whether their leaders were right or wrong to harbour such views.

This is democracy in action. Mr Bush and his successors must do their utmost to uphold and strengthen it.