Ahmadinejad questions 9/11, Holocaust

Updated: 2007-09-26 07:19

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended Holocaust revisionists and raised questions about who carried out the September 11 attacks in a tense showdown at Columbia University on Monday, where the school's head introduced the hard-line leader by calling him a "petty and cruel dictator."

Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as an intellectual and argued that his administration respected reason and science. But the former engineering professor, appearing shaken and irate over what he called "insults" from his host, soon found himself drawn into the type of rhetoric that has alienated American audiences in the past.

He provoked derisive laughter by responding to a question about Iran's execution of homosexuals by saying: "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country ... I don't know who's told you that we have this."

Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, set the combative tone in his introduction of Ahmadinejad: "Mr President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

Ahmadinejad retorted that Bollinger's opening was "an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here."

"There were insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully," Ahmadinejad said, accusing Bollinger of falling under the influence of the hostile US press and politicians.

Ahmadinejad drew audience applause at times, such as when he bemoaned the plight of the Palestinians. But he often declined to offer the simple answers the audience sought, responding instead with his own questions or long statements about history and justice.

The president's past statements about the Holocaust have raised hackles in the West, and were soundly attacked by Bollinger.

"In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as the fabricated legend," Bollinger told Ahmadinejad in his opening remarks. "One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers."

Bollinger said that might fool the illiterate and ignorant.

"When you come to a place like this, it makes you simply ridiculous. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history," he said.

Ahmadinejad said he wasn't passing judgment on whether the Holocaust occurred, but that, "assuming this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?"

He went on to say that he was defending the rights of European academics imprisoned for "questioning certain aspects" of the Holocaust, a reference to a small number who have been prosecuted under national laws for denying the genocide.

He also said the Holocaust has been abused as a justification for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians.

"Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?" he asked.

Asked why he had asked to visit the World Trade Center site - a request denied by New York authorities - Ahmadinejad said he wanted to express sympathy for the victims of the September 11 attacks.

Then he appeared to question whether al-Qaida was responsible, saying more research was needed.

"If the root causes of 9/11 are examined properly - why it happened, what caused it, what were the conditions that led to it, who truly was involved, who was really involved - and put it all together to understand how to prevent the crisis in Iraq, fix the problem in Afghanistan and Iraq combined," Ahmadinejad said.

Bollinger drew strong criticism for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia and had promised tough questions in his introduction. But the stridency of his attack on the Iranian leader took many by surprise.

"You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," Bollinger told Ahmadinejad about the leader's Holocaust denial.

Bollinger's introduction was "very harsh," said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.

"Inviting him and then turning around and alienating and insulting an entire nation whose representative this man happens to be is simply inappropriate," said Dabashi, who has also criticized Ahmadinejad.

Instead of addressing most of Bollinger's accusations directly, Ahmadinejad offered quotes from the Quran and criticism of past and present US governments.

He closed his prepared remarks with a terse smile, to applause and boos, before taking questions from the audience.

US President Bush said Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia "speaks volumes about, really, the greatness of America."

He told Fox News Channel that if Bollinger considered Ahmadinejad's visit an educational experience for Columbia students, "I guess it's OK with me."

Thousands of people jammed two blocks of 47th Street across from the United Nations to protest Ahmadinejad's visit to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly session. Organizers claimed a turnout of tens of thousands. Police did not immediately have a crowd estimate.

The speakers, most of them politicians and officials from Jewish organizations, proclaimed their support for Israel and criticized the Iranian leader for his remarks questioning the Holocaust.

"We're here today to send a message that there is never a reason to give a hatemonger an open stage," New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said.

Hundreds of protesters also assembled at Columbia. Dozens stood near the lecture hall where Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak. Signs in the crowd displayed a range of messages, including one reading: "We refuse to choose between Islamic fundamentalism and American imperialism."

Agencies

(China Daily 09/26/2007 page9)