Earlier this year, Brandeis University announced that it would be awarding honorary degrees to five notable figures, including atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her advocacy of women’s rights around the world:
Hirsi Ali, in her bestselling books Infidel and Nomad, made no secret of the fact that Islam, as interpreted by militants, extremists, and even (in some cases) casual believers, was not only untrue but harmful to the world. Between female genital mutilation, honor killings, the idea of martyrdom, and the murder of her friend Theo van Gogh, you could understand why she would courageously put her own life on the line to speak out against the horrors of the faith. In her mind, the problem wasn’t radical Islam. It was Islam, period. That’s why she was very blunt in a 2007 interview about her goal of trying to defeat Islam because she didn’t believe the “religion of peace” was capable of being saved in its current form.
Almost immediately after the announcement of her honorary degree, Muslim groups began to protest her selection.
A petition at Change.org started by a Muslim student asked:
How can an Administration of a University that prides itself on social justice and acceptance of all make a decision that targets and disrespects it’s own students? This is hurtful to the Muslim students and the Brandeis community who stand for social justice.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed those sentiments and went even further by comparing Hirsi Ali to white supremacists and anti-Semites:
We believe offering such an award to a promoter of religious prejudice such as Ali is equivalent to promoting the work of white supremacists and anti-Semites. Granting her an honorary degree is unworthy of the American tradition of civil liberty and religious freedom represented by Justice Louis Brandeis and the great university that carries his name.
While Ali is free to spew anti-Muslim hate –- including her call for violence against the entire Muslim world — in any venue she chooses, she does not have a similar right to be honored for that hate by a prestigious university.
The Brandeis Muslim Student Association wrote in an op-ed in the student newspaper:
There is a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech. Hirsi Ali has shamelessly passed this boundary as her remarks no longer regard her experiences, but rather condemn an entire religion and other minorities as a result of her prejudices and biases. Instead of encouraging respectful discussions and debates, she incites and supports insensitivity and irresponsibility by abusing freedom of speech as a way to justify her hate speech.
The Justice‘s editorial board took that side as well:
… her derogatory comments toward Islam warrant a closer look at the administration’s choice to award her a degree. In her 2010 memoir Nomad: From Islam to America, Hirsi Ali states that Islam is “not compatible with the modern Westernised way of living,” that “violence is an integral part [of Islam],” and that “Muhammad’s example is terrible, don’t follow it.” These comments ignore the fact that there are multiple views of Islam, insist that violence is inherent in Islam and that one culture is fundamentally better than another.
By presenting Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree, the University applauds all aspects of her work. An honorary degree validates the good she has done for women’s rights, yet it also condones the comments she has made against Islam, and therefore against a valued portion of our community.
Eventually, Brandeis caved in to the pressure. They announced that Hirsi Ali would not be receiving the honorary degree after all:
Following a discussion today between President Frederick Lawrence and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement. She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.
It was a disappointing withdrawal. Brandeis officials should have stuck by their original decision. Hirsi Ali has done incredible work to expose and end religious-based violence against women through her books and foundation.
Hirsi Ali was recently invited to give a lecture for Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program. Her speech is titled “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West” and it’s scheduled for this Monday night. But now we’re seeing all the same backlash we saw at Brandeis.
More than 35 groups — including, to my disappointment, the Yale Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — have signed on to an open letter expressing their disappointment in the invitation. It goes beyond just a harmless scolding, though. The Buckley Foundation said a representative from the Muslim Students Association specifically called for them to rescind her invitation. Here are some excerpts from the letter:
We sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances that Ms. Hirsi Ali faced in her Muslim household as a child and we recognize that such experiences do exist in many countries, including Muslim-majority ones. We condemn such actions and contend that Islam does not promote them. It is important to distinguish Islamic teachings from the practices of some Muslims, which can be based on a variety of sociopolitical reasons and which do exist in other non-Muslim communities around the world.
“Unfortunate circumstances” has to be the most unbelievable euphemism I’ve ever heard for religion-based genital mutilation…
Our concern is that Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so. In the past, under such authority, she has overlooked the complexity of sociopolitical issues in Muslim-majority countries and has purported that Islam promotes a number of violent and inhumane practices. At her worst, Ms. Hirsi Ali has said that Islam is a “destructive nihilistic cult of death” worshiping a “fire-breathing Allah” that, in all of its forms, needs to be “defeated.”
She doesn’t have credentials?! She lived through it. Yale: Where the lack of a doctorate means you have nothing worthwhile to say…
The comments Ms. Hirsi Ali has made on Islam have been classified as hate speech and have been considered unprotected libel and slander. She has been condemned for them by national organizations and universities. The Muslim community and its allies are disappointed that our own fellow Yalies would invite such a speaker knowingly and that she would have such a platform in our home.
That condemnation usually comes from people who think Islam is all about rainbows and lollipops. If these students think she’s wrong, then they’re welcome to challenge her. But not to silence her.
To their credit, the Buckley Foundation isn’t taking the bait:
“An invitation and decision to go forward with this event is not an endorsement of her views or her past statements,” said [Buckley Program president Rich] Lizardo. “It is an endorsement of her right to share those views and an endorsement of free speech.”
Here’s the beauty of a college campus. The 35 student groups, including the Muslim Students Association, is welcome to bring in a speaker of their own to refute Hirsi Ali’s points. They can probably even get campus funding for it. That’s what an open exchange of ideas is all about.
The National Review Online has an excellent editorial defending Hirsi Ali’s invitation:
… the students backing this censorship — Ivy Leaguers, the best and the brightest, the cream of America’s intellectual crop — seem to have no notion whatsoever that much of the purpose of education is precisely to discomfit and discompose. The great teachers were great questioners (see: Socratic Method) who understood that exposing shoddy habits of mind and training critical faculties are impossible if all one ever hears is confirmation of prior beliefs. Even the most enthusiastic Ivy League shill should know that spending $55K a year to have one’s presuppositions obsequiously endorsed is a waste. But in our age of studious political correctness, where the inmates write the asylum’s curriculum, these students are happy to insulate themselves against any opinions from beyond the Old Campus Quad.
The Buckley Program has stated that Hirsi Ali will speak as planned, and they do not intend to invite a pre-approved counterpoint. That is as it should be. To yield to the petitions of these aggrieved student groups would only facilitate the evaporation of intellectual diversity at one of America’s premier institutions of learning.
Hear, hear. Let Hirsi Ali speak, and students are welcome to respond and challenge her views. This notion that she’s unfairly critical of Islam is one that anyone is welcome to refute. She’s hardly someone who’s critical just for the sake of getting a rise out of people — she has plenty of reason to find fault with the faith.
I hope that these students who would rather she not be invited at all actually attend Monday night’s event. Don’t just protest outside and leave. Listen to her story and respond if necessary. That people are so sensitive to criticisms of Islam is reason alone for why her invitation is a welcome one.
(via Secular Right. Portions of this article were posted earlier.)