Ahmadinejad: 'A simple, ordinary guy'

“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.” So said Aijaz Zaka Syed in a report on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University and the United Nations last week for the Khaleej Times, Dubai’s leading English-language daily paper. Ray Hanania was likewise enthusiastic in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, saying that “Ahmadinejad scored many points in his speech at Columbia on Monday.”

The press in the Islamic world excoriated Columbia President Lee Bollinger for his opening remarks to Ahmadinejad, in which he characterized the Iranian President as a “petty and cruel dictator.” Syed huffed: “Is this how the Land of the Free treats its guests?” Bollinger was “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….” Writing in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly, Ida Sawyer wrote in the same vein but more temperately, noting that “while some students praised Bollinger’s courage for challenging the Iranian leader on a number of his policies concerning women, human rights and Israel, many felt his harsh condemnation before President Ahmadinejad had even spoken spoiled the atmosphere for academic debate.”

The Iranian David, according to the press in the Islamic world, faced a belligerent Goliath. In speaking of this, the irony began to get thick: Sawyer noted the “increasingly bellicose rhetoric towards Iran not only from the US government but from some European allies as well.” Sawyer did not mention Ahmadinejad’s own much-publicized bellicose rhetoric. A recent example came in early June at a ceremony commemorating the Ayatollah Khomeini on the anniversary of his death, when Ahmadinejad said of Israel that “the countdown to the destruction of this regime has been started by Hizbullah fighters.” Nor did Sawyer mention the “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” banners that were attached to jeeps and paraded in front of Ahmadinejad in Tehran shortly before he left for New York.

Syed praised Ahmadinejad’s response to Bollinger as one “that would have made Gandhi proud,” and quoted the Iranian President saying: “In Iran, we treat our guests with more respect!” Syed didn’t mention one recent guest of the Iranian regime, the frail 67-year-old female academic Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Esfandiara was released in August after payment of a $320,000 bail, after being held for three and a half months in solitary confinement on suspicion of being part of a plot to overthrow the Iranian government. Three other Iranian American guests of the mullahocracy, Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planner, Ali Shakeri, a businessman, and Parnaz Azima of Radio Free Europe, remain confined in Iran.

The irony was thickest coming from Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which deadpanned: “Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that the US has turned to a large prison where the media are keeping the American people away from truth.” IRNA didn’t mention Ahmadinejad’s own crackdown on the Iranian press: the Islamic regime shut down a newspaper and an online news agency in July. Iranian Culture Minister Hossein Saffar Harandi justified the measures by explaining that “there are some signs of a creeping coup in the press.”

It is easy to see why IRNA would laud Ahmadinejad and whitewash the unpleasant aspects of his trip to New York, but why the adulatory reviews from Cairo, Riyadh and elsewhere? Syed gives a hint: Ahmadinejad, he says, “was not there only as the president of Iran but as a representative of the Muslim world.” This “simple, ordinary guy” has become a symbol of the Islamic world’s defiance of the U.S. and the West — as he has cannily endeavored to position himself for quite some time. Unfortunately, this would have been the Islamic media’s perspective no matter what had been the outcome of his trip — a fact that should lead American institutions to think twice before providing a platform for such propaganda victories in the future.