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Behind the media frenzy over Ahmadinejad

By Alan Maass | September 28, 2007 | Page 16

THE U.S. media and political leaders stoked anti-Muslim stereotypes and whipped up enthusiasm for the U.S. government's Middle East wars with their campaign this month against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad was confronted by several thousand protesters at a speech at Columbia University on September 24--one stop on a visit to New York that included a speech at the United Nations the next day.

Columbia became a media zoo, with the Manhattan campus locked down. Outside the campus gates, demonstrators from pro-Israel organizations like the Anti-Defamation League gathered, with signs denouncing Ahmadinejad as the "new Hitler."

On campus, near the building where he spoke, a range of student organizations held a rally intended to protest Ahmadinejad's political views, but also defend his right to speak. Representatives of progressive organizations put forward antiwar and antiracist views, but many of the other speakers' themes echoed the message of the right-wingers outside.

A smaller number of antiwar activists gathered for a picket to oppose Islamophobia and the threats of war against Iran.

"There are many good reasons to denounce Ahmadinejad and his oppressive policies and intolerant views," members of the Columbia Coalition Against the War said in a statement calling for the picket. "However, in the current political climate, a rally expressing this position which is not explicitly antiwar risks lending weight to the drive to war, whatever the declared intent or format."

As an Iranian-born alumnus of Columbia told the BWOG, a blog run by the staff of Columbia's undergraduate magazine, the Blue and White, "We thought a lot of what was going on was creating hatred against Iran and Iranians...You can take pictures of people being executed in Texas, but that doesn't represent what the U.S. is like."

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THE ANTI-Ahmadinejad crusaders exploited genuine disgust with the Iranian president's reactionary political views--particularly his highly publicized comments doubting the Nazi Holocaust of Jews during the Second World War--in their campaign to demonize him.

New York's tabloid newspapers referred to Ahmadinejad as a "madman" and a "monster" in giant front-page headlines--a blatantly different standard of treatment than for U.S. allies such as Pakistan's military dictator Pervez Musharraf; former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a Hindu supremacist; or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is out to destroy the Palestinian people.

Fox News commentators warned darkly of the potentially deadly consequences of Ahmadinejad's supposed program to develop nuclear weapons--but these same pundits have spent four-and-a-half years cheerleading the U.S. war on Iraq, which has cost more than 1 million lives.

Both Republican and Democratic politicians weighed in. Hillary Clinton heaped scorn on Ahmadinejad's request to visit to site of the World Trade Center. Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the state assembly, said he thought the state should withhold public funds to Columbia as punishment.

On campus, Columbia President Lee Bollinger insisted on introducing Ahmadinejad's speech to ask him some "tough questions"--but his statement was a litany of insults. Bollinger repeated the Bush administration's propaganda that Iran is sponsoring a "proxy war" in Iraq and accused Ahmadinejad of being a "cruel and petty dictator."

Not once did he recognize the basic fact that Iran's political system is far more democratic than those of U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia--or, for that matter, the monarchy of the U.S.-backed Shah, overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Bollinger's tirade further exposed the double standards of the media and the university. Last fall, when Columbia hosted Jim Gilchrist, head of the anti-immigrant Minutemen vigilantes, Bollinger didn't feel the need to qualify that speech with any introduction.

And when Gilchrist stopped speaking during a protest of immigrant rights supporters, the very newspapers hyperventilating now about Ahmadinejad were desperately concerned about Gilchrist's right to speak freely.

The stakes in this controversy are high. The disastrous occupation of Iraq has stretched the U.S. military to the breaking point, but an attack on Iran--once thought to be an inevitable next stop in Washington's "war on terror"--remains an all-too-real possibility, whether in the near or long term.

Indeed, while the media were focused on Ahmadinejad's upcoming appearance at Columbia, Sens. Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman proposed an amendment to the 2008 defense spending bill to make it official U.S. policy to "combat, contain and roll back" Iran--similar to the law passed under Bill Clinton that made "regime change" in Iraq official policy, creating the framework for Bush's 2003 invasion.

The toll in a U.S. attack on Iran would be every bit as devastating as in Iraq--hundreds, maybe thousands dead in initial air strikes, and many more falling victim as a U.S. attack sets off further conflicts. In addition, the efforts of Iranians organizing for free speech, women's rights and gay liberation, and against racism and anti-Semitism, would be set back immeasurably.

"Why has the president of Iran become a cartoon villain in American politics?" Columbia student Monique Dols and alum Dylan Stillwood wrote in an op-ed article published in the Columbia Spectator newspaper.

"He's a repressive ruler who holds reactionary views, but the same is true of many dictators and monarchs that the United States has supported, such as the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and the House of Saud. The U.S. is not a principled opponent of repressive governments. The real origins of the recent saber-rattling lie in Iraq."

The campaign against Ahmadinejad isn't about opposing his political views or standing up for the victims of Iranian government repression. It is about advancing an agenda of war and repression at home by whipping up a hysteria against a new bogeyman.

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