Brandeis and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born scholar, writer, and activist, was scheduled to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University at its graduation next month. After students and others protested Ali's selection, citing her persistent and vigorous criticism of Islam, Brandeis disinvited her, issuing this statement on April 8, 2014:

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 Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year's commencement.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.

Commencement is about celebrating and honoring our extraordinary students and their accomplishments, and we are committed to providing an atmosphere that allows our community's focus to be squarely on our students. In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.


What has Hirsi Ali said that is so troubling? The New York Times reports that Hirsi Ali has referred to Islam as "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death." Furthermore:

In 2007, Ms. Hirsi Ali gave an interview to The London Evening Standard that was, by her own telling, the most unvarnished public expression of her views to that point, including the “cult of death” comment. She advocated the closing of Islamic schools in the West and said that “violence is inherent in Islam” and that “Islam is the new fascism.”

Later that year, in an interview with the publication Reason, she said, “I think that we are at war with Islam,” and said it must be defeated. “It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now,” she said. “They’re not interested in peace.”

A Wall Street Journal article provides a bit more context:

Ms. Hirsi Ali, who was a member of the Dutch Parliament from 2003 to 2006, has advocated against female genital mutilation and domestic abuse.

"I think that we are at war with Islam," she was quoted as saying in a 2007 interview with Reason magazine. "Islam can be defeated in many ways.…You look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, 'This is a warning. We won't accept this anymore.' There comes a moment when you crush your enemy."

This whole matter implicates a familiar mix of issues and questions -- the nature of free speech, the role of a university, the purpose of a commencement ceremony compared to the purpose of a university generally, and much more; the issues, in other words, that tend to send people to blogs and increase blood pressure.

As I reflect on the matter, the following points/questions come to mind.

What "core values" has Hirsi Ali violated? The university's statement doesn't say, and in issuing so brief a statement with no specifics, it missed a teachable moment. I assume the language about "core values" relates to Hirsi Ali's denunciations of Islam, but does that alone disqualify her from an honorary degree? What, precisely, are the core values at stake? Suppose, for example, that one of the core values is Brandeis's desire to foster respect for diversity of thought and belief, including various religious perspectives. How do Brandeis officials weigh that core value against the core values embedded in, say, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in its protection of free speech?

Put another way, is it the mere criticism of Islam that crossed the line, or is it, rather, the tone and severity of that criticism, e.g., the "cult of death" remark? 

To be clear: For all kinds of reasons (as I blogged about yesterday), universities and colleges should be careful about who they select for honorary degrees. A university commencement ceremony is no place to encourage hatred or intolerance or viewpoints that undermine the noble goals of an institution of higher learning or a civilized society. Given Hirsi Ali's comments, I can understand Brandeis's concern. After all, what impression does Brandeis convey to its Muslim students, and to the community generally, if they confer an honorary degree on a person who calls Islam a cult of death, an enemy and a new fascism? Uh, happy graduation? 

Notably, Brandeis did not ban Hirsi Ali from campus. It didn't say that her opinions are so drastic as to be unworthy of dialogue. If you re-read the statement, Brandeis officials make a distinction that many Catholic officials have made when it comes to who can or should be honored at Catholic graduations: the distinction between a commencement ceremony and the normal exchange of free ideas that occur in a university setting. If this is the thinking, Brandeis is basically offering an analogous version of the place restrictions on speech that U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence allows. Even under the First Amendment, the right to free speech is not absolute.  

Moreover, the Brandeis statement praises Hirsi Ali and says it "respect[s] and appreciate[s] her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world."

Of course, the nature of this episode is somewhat complicated by the fact that Hirsi Ali herself grew up Muslim. She does not speak abstractly or from the detached position that many Western commentators do when they castigate the Islamic world. According to the same New York Times article I quoted above: "Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences . . . A native of Somalia, she has written and spoken extensively of her experience as a Muslim girl in East Africa, including undergoing genital cutting, a practice she has vigorously opposed, and her family’s attempts to force her to marry a man against her wishes."

How do we weigh Hirsi Ali's own experience in this matter? Does it have any relevance to Brandeis's decision?

I'm still working through some of these questions myself. I do think, however, that Brandeis missed a good opportunity to explain its reversal. Though a longer explanation might not have changed many minds, it would at least address a few of the contested questions and show the world how a prominent American university tries to balance the rights and claims that many countries entirely ignore.

Related: In today's Wall Street Journal, Hirsi Ali has published an op-ed titled, "Here's What I Would Have Said at Brandeis."

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