Brandeis University’s decision to rescind a planned honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent anti-Islam activist and writer, provoked a predictable explosion of indignation as well as some praise. One writer on FoxNews.com accused Brandeis of committing “an honor killing.”
I wrote a book a few years ago on Muslim life in America, a project that put me in the same public radio studios as Ali, who happened to be promoting her own book at the time. Thus, permit me four blunt points on the latest controversy surrounding this contentious public figure.
1. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a professional provocateur. In speeches, articles, and books, her slashing attacks on the entirety of a global religion invite unreasoned invective—such as the notion that Brandeis “killed” her—not rational thought. Islam, she argues, constitutes “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” That’s not an invitation to discussion. Brandeis made a mistake proposing to honor Ali, and then wisdom prevailed. “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the school said in a statement released eight days after it initially announced Ali would get the honorary degree at a commencement ceremony on May 18.
2. Ali participates in a broader anti-Islam business. In search of grant money and individual donations, this cottage industry generates hatred and misunderstanding from think tanks, investigative groups, and Washington congressional offices. Ali’s base, the conservative American Enterprise Institute, hosts a number of brilliant thinkers and advocates on the right. She is not one of them.
Her well-documented personal experiences give her ample grounds to reject the religion of her youth. A native of Somalia, she has recounted undergoing genital cutting and being pressured to marry a man against her wishes. Years later, after moving to the Netherlands, her friend and collaborator, the film director Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered by a radical Muslim who threatened to kill Ali, too. She has campaigned against female honor killings—the real kind—in African and Arab countries. Her feminist activism deserves applause. As for religion, she’s entitled to her anti-Islam ill will, as refugees from intolerant fundamentalist brands of Christianity and Judaism are entitled to their alienation.
But Ali’s making a career of condemning all of Islam and all Muslims is a sad misuse of her considerable talents. “I think we are at war with Islam,” she has said. As conservative politicians such as former President George W. Bush have noted, that kind of belligerence doesn’t make sense. The legitimate fight is against terroristic factions of Muslims, not against a religion that’s more than a billion strong.
3. The unfocused bigotry that Ali encourages is bad for American business. Predominantly Muslim countries purchase goods and services on the world market. Their governments and corporate leaders have choices. Islam-haters in the U.S. cannot be helping American companies compete. The Muslim tourism market is estimated at more than $100 billion a year. Rather than visit Turkey or Malaysia, Muslim families of means could tour Disney World. Or send their children to American universities—like Brandeis. Promoting Ali’s ideas doesn’t help.
4. This isn’t a question of free expression or the First Amendment. “Justice Louis D. Brandeis would be turning over in his grave,” declared Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “The university named after the former Supreme Court justice has illustrated the depths of small-minded bigotry and intolerance that now represent the culture on many campuses.” Neal added: “How ironic that it was Justice Brandeis himself who understood that the essence of the free exchange of ideas—something to which virtually all universities nominally adhere—is ‘to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies,’ not by ‘enforced silence.’”
Please. Ali has no difficulty finding a soapbox courtesy of Fox News or American Enterprise. Brandeis has even invited her to visit its campus to voice her views. The university has simply decided not to honor those views by awarding her a degree.
Let the debate continue.