Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2014
We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking.
On Tuesday, after protests by students, faculty and outside groups, Brandeis University revoked its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree at its commencement ceremonies in May. The protesters accused Ms. Hirsi Ali, an advocate for the rights of women and girls, of being "Islamophobic." Here is an abridged version of the remarks she planned to deliver.
One year ago, the city and suburbs of Boston were still in mourning. Families who only weeks earlier had children and siblings to hug were left with only photographs and memories. Still others were hovering over bedsides, watching as young men, women, and children endured painful surgeries and permanent disfiguration. All because two brothers, radicalized by jihadist websites, decided to place homemade bombs in backpacks near the finish line of one of the most prominent events in American sports, the Boston Marathon.
All of you in the Class of 2014 will never forget that day and the days that followed. You will never forget when you heard the news, where you were, or what you were doing. And when you return here, 10, 15 or 25 years from now, you will be reminded of it. The bombs exploded just 10 miles from this campus.
I read an article recently that said many adults don't remember much from before the age of 8. That means some of your earliest childhood memories may well be of that September morning simply known as "9/11."
You deserve better memories than 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. And you are not the only ones. In Syria, at least 120,000 people have been killed, not simply in battle, but in wholesale massacres, in a civil war that is increasingly waged across a sectarian divide. Violence is escalating in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Libya, in Egypt. And far more than was the case when you were born, organized violence in the world today is disproportionately concentrated in the Muslim world.
Another striking feature of the countries I have just named, and of the Middle East generally, is that violence against women is also increasing. In Saudi Arabia, there has been a noticeable rise in the practice of female genital mutilation. In Egypt, 99% of women report being sexually harassed and up to 80 sexual assaults occur in a single day.
Especially troubling is the way the status of women as second-class citizens is being cemented in legislation. In Iraq, a law is being proposed that lowers to 9 the legal age at which a girl can be forced into marriage. That same law would give a husband the right to deny his wife permission to leave the house.
Sadly, the list could go on. I hope I speak for many when I say that this is not the world that my generation meant to bequeath yours. When you were born, the West was jubilant, having defeated Soviet communism. An international coalition had forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The next mission for American armed forces would be famine relief in my homeland of Somalia. There was no Department of Homeland Security, and few Americans talked about terrorism.
Two decades ago, not even the bleakest pessimist would have anticipated all that has gone wrong in the part of world where I grew up. After so many victories for feminism in the West, no one would have predicted that women's basic human rights would actually be reduced in so many countries as the 20th century gave way to the 21st.
Today, however, I am going to predict a better future, because I believe that the pendulum has swung almost as far as it possibly can in the wrong direction.
When I see millions of women in Afghanistan defying threats from the Taliban and lining up to vote; when I see women in Saudi Arabia defying an absurd ban on female driving; and when I see Tunisian women celebrating the conviction of a group of policemen for a heinous gang rape, I feel more optimistic than I did a few years ago. The misnamed Arab Spring has been a revolution full of disappointments. But I believe it has created an opportunity for traditional forms of authority—including patriarchal authority—to be challenged, and even for the religious justifications for the oppression of women to be questioned.
Yet for that opportunity to be fulfilled, we in the West must provide the right kind of encouragement. Just as the city of Boston was once the cradle of a new ideal of liberty, we need to return to our roots by becoming once again a beacon of free thought and civility for the 21st century. When there is injustice, we need to speak out, not simply with condemnation, but with concrete actions.
One of the best places to do that is in our institutions of higher learning. We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged. I'm used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen.
I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women's and girls' basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight.
The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.
So I ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Is it blasphemy—punishable by death—to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation.
Is such an argument inadmissible? It surely should not be at a university that was founded in the wake of the Holocaust, at a time when many American universities still imposed quotas on Jews.
The motto of Brandeis University is "Truth even unto its innermost parts." That is my motto too. For it is only through truth, unsparing truth, that your generation can hope to do better than mine in the struggle for peace, freedom and equality of the sexes.
Ms. Hirsi Ali is the author of "Nomad: My Journey from Islam to America" (Free Press, 2010). She is a fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard's Kennedy School and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Dear President Lawrence:
As a scholar whose 1981 PhD comes from Brandeis, I read the news that you rescinded the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali with particular disgust and anger. Your decision is an act of cowardice and appeasement to those 85 faculty members who signed their document of intolerance, and it has done deep and long-lasting damage to a university whose very existence is predicated on redressing the damage that discrimination within the academy had done to American Jews for so many years. Unless you can find some way to repair the damage you have done, I will not identify with or support Brandeis as long as you are its President.
Ms. Hirsi has had the courage to say unpopular things about the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism. In two of my prize-winning books, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006), I have had occasion to address the role of Islam and Islamism in fanning the flames of Jew-hatred. In publishing work that documents the role of the Islamist interpretation of the Koran in promulgating the most absurd and idiotic ideas about the Jews, I have faced intolerance from scholars working on the Middle East. They have denounced well-founded scholarship as “Islamophobia” or “Zionist propaganda” and denied that the Koran or Islamism could possibly have anything to do with anti-Semitism. Like Tony Kushner and Desmond Tutu, to whom Brandeis has given honorary degrees, they have erroneously argued that Arab and Islamist antagonism to Israel is exclusively the result of the alleged sins of Israel. As far as I know, neither has had anything of substance to say about the role of Islam and Islamism in fanning the flames of hatred of the Jews and of Israel. These critics have said that those of us who point to the anti-Jewish elements of the Koran and the Jew-hatred of modern Islamists are guilty of intolerance towards Muslims. I have seen this up close for years now. The last place I expected to find groveling, embarrassing appeasement of this rubbish was from the president of Brandeis University.
No doubt, Hirsi’s comments about Islam offend many believers. The same was true of Sigmund Freud’s Future of an Illusion. Freud, you will recall, dismissed religion as the product of a universal infantile neurosis of humanity. Yet I doubt that if Freud were alive today, those 85 faculty members would have protested his honorary degree. On the contrary, his criticism of religion in general, especially of Judaism or Christianity, would be seen as simply an entry ticket into intellectual respectability.
Your decision reflects a now-widespread double standard of broad criticism of Judaism and Christianity combined with fear—yes it is fear—to write and speak with equal critical spirit about Islam. We historians of modern Germany and Nazism know that the Nazi interpretation of Christianity as well as the core texts of the Christian tradition itself, were used by the Nazis to justify their mass murders. In our own time, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brothers, Al Qaeda and the government of Iran, despite their differences, all draw on phrases from the Koran and in the texts of subsequent Islamic commentaries to find theological justification for antagonism to Jews, Zionism and the state of Israel.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been willing to point this out, something Kushner and Tutu have never done. That the president of a university founded by Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust should have rescinded an honor to a woman who has had the courage to attack the most important source of Jew-hatred in the world today is a disgraceful act and a failure of leadership. Instead of appeasing intolerance in your faculty, you should have taken this moment to reaffirm the values for which Brandeis has stood for so long and reconfirm the place of universities as models of tolerance and enlightenment in our troubled society. Once a proud alumnus, I will be forced to disavow my relationship with Brandeis in the future.
Professor, Department of History
University of Maryland
The Weekly Standard, April 9, 2014
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has just released this statement in response to Brandeis University's decision to rescind her invitation to receive an honorary degree:
“Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me—just a few hours before issuing a public statement—to say that such a decision had been made.
“When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called 'honor killings,' and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.
“What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.
“What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The 'spirit of free expression' referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.
“Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me 'to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.' Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to 'engage' in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck—and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.
“I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed woman and girls everywhere.”
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