Whoa, boy! Iranian President Ahmadinejad sure had something to say at the UN conference on racism Monday. And, boy did it get a big reaction. Not enough reaction, though, because too few people remained present in order to be able to react.
America’s decision to boycott the conference, and Britain’s decision to walk out on Ahmadinejad’s speech, and other nations’ representatives’ decisions to try to silence the man’s speech with vocal protest and object-throwing were all bad decisions. Norway, whose representative to the conference followed Ahmadinejad, got it right. You stay, you listen, you reply.
Isn’t the purpose of the United Nations to provide a neutral meeting-ground for all nations, friendly or antagonistic, to meet and make decisions that are in the world’s best interest? I’m sure that it’s naive to think so, but it should be so. If we boycott because of a certain enemy-nation’s presence at a meeting, then the United Nations falls apart, as it no longer stands above the snubs and favours of regular diplomacy. You must attend to have your voice heard.
To walk out implies there could be no discussion of the issues raised in Ahmadinejad’s speech. But the issues he raises are very real and they need to be discussed. Israel is a problematic and complex issue. We must bring it to the table, we must face up to it. We must also engage with the facts of our past if we hope for anything other than violent and determined resistance from those who see us as domineering aggressors. We must listen so that we may genuinely understand the challenges we face.
Ahmadinejad may be a bad guy. Personally, I don’t trust him, from what little I have seen of him. But he is the elected leader of a sovereign nation. And he is one of the few heads-of-state who has the courage to tell our leaders to their faces what probably seventy-five percent of the world’s population think of us. How weak we are to shun a man like that. He may in fact be mad. But he speaks deeply to billions of people, not because they are all also mad, but because there is truth in what he says. If we stay away, if we walk out, if we offer only total denial, then we let him decide what the facts are and how to interpret them. He and other antagonists have uncontested access to their people’s ears. When we avoid dialogue, we still speak, and our message is, we don’t care about you, we never have, we never will, we don’t even care enough to listen, to reply. We must respond in open, honest dialogue or the meaning of our silence will be interpreted by Ahmadinejad and others like him. We must talk in order to have any chance of influencing global understanding of ourselves. And it cannot be public-relations- or government-style defensive rhetoric. We have to actually engage with the facts and the myths that make up our historical and present image.
This man’s speech is a warning as potent as melting polar ice. If we don’t start to engage with our past actions and the international political issues facing us in large part because of them, then we face a future where we can be certain of little but trouble. Now is not the time to put our heads in the sand, nor is it good enough to do business as usual.