By Richard Peréna-Peña & Tanzina Vega, New York Times
April 8, 2014
Facing growing criticism, Brandeis University said Tuesday that it had reversed course and would not award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women's rights and a fierce critic of Islam, who has called the religion "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death."
"We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values," the university said in a statement released eight days after it had announced that Ms. Hirsi Ali and four other people would be honored at its commencement on May 18.
The university said that the president of Brandeis, Frederick M. Lawrence, discussed the matter with Ms. Hirsi Ali on Tuesday, and that she "is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue." Universities consider it important to make a distinction between inviting a speaker who may air unpopular or provocative views that the institution does not endorse, and awarding an honorary degree, which is more akin to affirming the body of a recipient's work.
Attempts to reach Ms. Hirsi Ali late Tuesday by email and telephone were unsuccessful.
At first, it was bloggers who noted and criticized the plan to honor Ms. Hirsi Ali, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Within a few days, a Brandeis student started an online petition against the decision at Change.org, drawing thousands of signatures. The Council on American–Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, took note, contacting its members though email and social media, and urging them to complain to the university.
On Tuesday, a student newspaper, The Justice, reported on the controversy, and the Council on American–Islamic Relations sent a letter to Dr. Lawrence, referring to Ms. Hirsi Ali as a "notorious Islamophobe."
"She is one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide," Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the group, said in an interview on Tuesday. "I don't assign any ill will to Brandeis. I think they just kind of got fooled a little bit."
In its statement, Brandeis said, "For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of" Ms. Hirsi Ali's record of anti–Islam statements, though those comments have been fairly widely publicized.
"You would think that someone at Brandeis would have learned to use Google," said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, who said he thought Brandeis had arrived at the right position: not awarding a degree, but welcoming Ms. Hirsi Ali to speak.
Having drawn fire for inviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Brandeis may now take criticism from other camps, whether for disavowing Ms. Hirsi Ali's views, or for giving in to Muslim activists.
Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali's critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far. 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.
She moved to the Netherlands as a young woman, and she was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She wrote the screenplay for "Submission," a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Shortly after its release, the director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, who pinned to the victim's body a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali as well.
"She has her very real personal story, she has her views, and she's free to say what sheŐd like to say," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group. "But for an institution like Brandeis to choose to honor someone like this is really disappointing."
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."
Western leaders like George W. Bush and Tony Blair were striking a very different tone, insisting that they were at war with terrorist factions, not Islam as a whole.
Brandeis said last week that it intended to confer honorary degrees on five recipients, including Ms. Hirsi Ali. One of the recipients is Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times.