Ayaan Hirsi Ali is, indeed, a controversial figure, especially for the vehemence with which she has criticized Islamic fundamentalism. Just read her memoir Infidel, and you’ll understand why. Her childhood was spent in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where she survived genital mutilation, physical and emotional abuse, parental attempts at forced marriage and all the forms of degradation to which “good little girls” are subjected under rigid interpretation of Sharia law. Ultimately she moved to The Netherlands and was elected to Parliament. Her memoir tells of how she went from dutiful submission to a self-aware political activist fighting for freedom and women’s dignity. Because she speaks out, she lives under constant death threats.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has formed a foundation to fight for women’s rights everywhere, and she certainly is a hero to those who approve of freeing women from oppression imposed on girls and women by extreme religion and cultural intolerance. It is understandable that Brandeis University would invite her to receive an honorary degree at its May commencement. Oh, wait a minute. Not so fast. This week, Brandeis rescinded its invitation based, it said, on extreme language used by Hirsi Ali in talking about Islam, in one way or another, as “a religion of death,” “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
Nearly a quarter of the faculty lined up with Muslim students and others to protest the University’s decision to honor Hirsi Ali. They decried her as Islamaphobic and attacked her “hateful views.” But maybe they would have shared those views if they had been treated as she was. To me, she is a woman of great courage, standing up for all women against the strictures of a vicious and repressive fundamentalist community.
Brandeis asserts that there is a difference between inviting someone to a dialogue on campus and honoring that person for the body of his or her work. Maybe so. But they should have thought of that in advance. They claim they didn’t know about her anti-Islam language. They live maybe under a rock?
This about-face by Brandeis smacks of craven political correctness. A Washington Post columnist recalls how in 2006 the University honored famous playwright Tony Kushner, whose anti-Zionist attitude had been reflected in his statement that “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.” At the time, Brandeis said it stood by its invitation, explaining that it doesn’t select honorary degree recipients based on their political beliefs. Apparently it does today.
I don’t usually agree with Wall St. Journal editorial positions. Today the paper reasonably asks if Hirsi Ali’s critics by implication support the abuses she has fought her whole life – forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honor killings, all part of Shariah law. And, noting that Brandeis was founded “to defend non-sectarian religious liberty,” the editorial wonders if the University now includes in its core values “intolerance and the illiberal suppression of ideas.” That’s the message underlying the University’s reversal on Hirsi Ali.
Hirsi herself responded by congratulating the Brandeis graduates on their commencement and hoping that they turn out to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater. Amen to that!
I welcome your comments in the section below. p.s. Check out Hirsi’s “Here’s What I would Have Said at Brandeis” in Friday’s WSJ.