Brandeis reverses itself on honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Power Line hero for reasons that will become clear below. Brandeis University was set to give her an honorary degree at this year’s commencement exercises. But bowing to pressure from Muslim students, outside advocacy groups, and a portion of its faculty, Brandeis has backed down.

As much as I admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I don’t condemn Brandeis’ decision. My reasons will, I hope, also become clear below.

An outspoken defender of women’s rights in Islamic societies, Hirsi Ali escaped an arranged marriage in her native Somalia by immigrating to the Netherlands in 1992. She served as a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. In parliament, she worked on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and defending the rights of women in Dutch Muslim society.

In 2004, together with director Theo van Gogh, she made Submission, a film about the oppression of women in conservative Islamic cultures. The airing of the film on Dutch television resulted in the assassination of van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.

Despite death threats, Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to crusade in favor of women’s rights and against Islamist oppression. For example, she helped establish the AHA Foundation, which works to protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture.

She is also a strong defender of Israel. This comes through forcefully in Scott’s 2012 interview of her.

It should be clear by now why Brandeis intended to give Hirsi Ali an honorary degree. Yet in the face of pressure it backed down. Why?

Brandeis issued the following statement:

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 Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement.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 past statements by Hirsi Ali are “inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values”? Fox News points to a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine in which Ali said:

Once [Islam] is defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.

If this statement is antithetical to the Brandeis administration then the University is right not to give Hirsi Ali an honorary degree. Giving that honor to someone who earned consideration through strongly expressed views (as opposed to celebrity status, political office, or large monetary contributions) implies, at a minimum, the absence of strong disagreement with those views — what the person supports, what the person denounces, and the terms in which she expresses support and denunciation.

Brandeis’ decision is not similar to the shameful decision of Mozilla to fire its CEO for having given money to a campaign against state recognition of gay marriage. CEO is not an honor bestowed or properly withheld based on one’s political views or contributions.

I happen to agree with Hirsi Ali’s hard-earned view of Islam. Thus, I criticize Brandeis for elevating its dangerous, mind-numbing naivety about Islam into a “core value.” But given that Brandeis has done so, I can’t criticize it for not honoring Hirsi Ali.

At the end of its statement, Brandeis proclaims that “Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.” I hope this true.

And I hope that if she does come to Brandeis to speak, the University will make sure she is able to do so without harassment and that it will come down hard on students, faculty, and outsiders who try to prevent her from exercising the right of free expression that the school claims “has defined Brandeis University throughout its history.”

If so, Brandeis will distinguish itself from most contemporary institutions of higher learning.

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