Respecting your guest and being generous to them is part of Arab and Muslim culture, similarly the act of disrespecting your guest is the most vile act one can commit. The moment Bollinger insulted the Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president had the support of everyone, even those who hated Iran religiously. This was only superseded by Ahmadinejad's reaction to the insults, he responded in a brave and dignified manner.
That's not to say people didn't have things to object to in his speech, many Arabs are alarmed of Iran's growing support of Shia militias in the region - from Hizbollah to Mahdi army - and the perceived Sunni-Shia clash. And the president's response about homosexuality in Iran was equally untrue, I've heard sometime back that Iran is second in number of sex change operations - behind Thailand - and actually the Iranian government pays for it.
The Iranian president wanted to present a different prospective of Iran, that it's righteous and peaceful. He surely had scored big with the Arab public. Arab stations led by Aljazeera took a different prospective than that of the America media, and the guests were also different.
Most of the editorials in NY portrait the host, Columbia university president, as brave but far from it, it was the complete opposite to me. He was simply reacting to the criticism from the media, Jewish lobby, neocon pundits and those who funded the government. And in the process he comprised the whole idea of free speech and the independence of academia from political pressures. The questions is, would he have done the same if it was president Bush?
The pressure paid off, from now on any American academic institution would think twice before hosting anyone with a difference view that what is "acceptable".
I thought this piece described accurately how the whole show had nothing to do with "free speech":
Bollinger, meanwhile, was playing to a different audience. After taking a beating for giving Ahmadinejad a forum, he was eager to show the media, alumni, concerned Jewish organizations and a raft of bellicose neoconservative pundits that he was no terrorist-loving appeaser of Holocaust deniers.
In a narrow sense, both Ahmadinejad and Bollinger achieved their goals. Ahmadinejad showed that he could be dignified in the face of crass American bullies, which will play well abroad -- and may even buttress his dwindling prestige in Iran. And Bollinger showed that he can be a crass American bully, which, in our current political climate, is what passes for "courage."
Sorry, no. "Free speech at its best" is when someone really does speak truth to power, and power stops blathering long enough to engage with inconvenient ideas. If an Iranian professor, inside Iran, had said what Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad, that would have been brave.
Or -- stay with me here -- if Bollinger had invited President Bush to Columbia and made those same unvarnished remarks to him, and Bush had toughed it out and struggled to answer half a dozen unfiltered, critical questions from an audience not made up of his handpicked supporters . . . . Well, that too would have been free speech at its best.
Unfortunately, that's not the kind of thing you're likely to see in America.