Acknowledging cultural difference
“In Iran, we do not have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon,” said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his Sept. 24 speech at Columbia University.
Prior to imparting his stance on homosexuality in Iran, the leader was given a warm 20-minute welcome by his host, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, in which Bollinger called the leader of Iran “illiterate,” “evil,” and basically unworthy of being present at the symposium.
“Today, I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express revulsion at what you stand for,” Bollinger said to his guest.
Though Bollinger managed to hoard most of the speech time allocated to the Iranian president, I won’t let him consume any more of my article.
Before discussing Ahmadinejad’s alleged disavowal of Iranian homosexuality, let’s take into account some facts about the leader. He is well-educated, having attended university in Iran and earned his master’s degree in civil engineering. Despite his rustic dress, he is not a fool. He is a practicing Muslim, but not an extremist. Extremists are devoid of reason, cannot logically explain their actions, and rely mainly on the fear of God to win an argument. The attempt to paint the president as an illiterate Muslim fundamental fanatic is erroneous.
Now on to Ahmadinejad’s controversial reply to a student’s question on homosexuality and the treatment of homosexuals in Iran. The issue here is not really the expression, but the validity of the expression. Examined closely and in appropriate context, Ahmadinejad’s statement is not wrong. It is absolutely right that being recognized as homosexual in Iranian culture is not what it is in present-day America. Islam explicitly and implicitly prohibits homosexual acts; in fact, it condemns them under all circumstances, as does Christianity. Under Islam, no explanation or justification for homosexuality — whether scientific or genetic, moral or ethical — is accepted, and like it or not, Iran is an Islamic Republic. However, nowadays it is not considered politically correct to condemn homosexual behavior, and regardless of their personal opinion on the subject, most educated Muslims don’t discriminate at all.
I accept that the president refused to conform or adapt his beliefs to the modern conventions during his speech at Columbia. However, we must understand that this man comes from a society where more than being religiously taboo, it is considered a matter of shame or a loss of honor if a father has a son or daughter with homosexual leanings. It often results in social exclusion. So, yes, in Iran homosexuality is not conventionally defended by human rights, gay rights, or any other form of resistance. It is simply not a part of the culture, was not a part of the culture prior to Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and may not ever be.
Ahmadinejad hails from a humble background, and is not a diplomat. Therefore he was unable to seek refuge in politically correct language. When he said that “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals,” what he actually meant is that the concept of homosexuality as a matter of liberal choice or preference does not exist in the Iranian society. It exists, but as an abnormality, not as a lifestyle.
Regardless of our majors, at Carnegie Mellon University we are all guided by one fundamental rule: to have open enough minds to innovate and think critically. Regardless of our backgrounds and biases, I propose that we live up to the Carnegie Mellon tradition.