Remember when colleges prided themselves on the diligence and depth of their research? Frederick Lawrence, president of Brandeis University, apparently does not.
He offered an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Then, at the last minute, he rescinded the offer because, he claims, he became aware of “past statements” by her “inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Hey, scholar-in-chief, ever hear of Google?
Ms. Hirsi Ali, of course, is an intrepid women’s rights advocate who has focused on Muslim women, raising questions, as she has phrased it, on “the role of Islam in legitimizing” female genital mutilation, “honor killings,” forced marriages, wife beating and other abuses.
At Brandeis — and, sad to say, most campuses nowadays — such inquiry is denounced as “Islamophobic” and suppressed. If more Muslim women are victimized as a result, that’s a price our elite educators are willing to pay — or, more precisely, to let Muslim women pay.
Eighty-five faculty members signed what distinguished historian Jeffrey Herf, who earned his doctorate from Brandeis in 1981, called a “document of intolerance” toward Ms. Hirsi Ali. However, she places most of the blame for Brandeis’ about-face on her “usual critics, notably the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).”
Spokesmen for CAIR — an unindicted co-conspirator in a case involving Hamas, a federally designated terrorist organization — have responded by saying that while they vehemently oppose honoring Ms. Hirsi Ali, they nevertheless support her right to free speech.
That claim is blatantly contradicted by CAIR’s persistent attempts to block screenings of “The Honor Diaries,” a powerful, new film about gross violations of women’s human rights in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other corners of the “Muslim world,” and the uphill battle of Muslim reformers against Muslim fundamentalists. Ms. Hirsi Ali is the film’s executive producer, and is among the women — several of whom are devout Muslims — prominently featured in it. My strong recommendation: Defy CAIR and see the movie.
Groups and individuals determined to silence critics of Islamic law and culture have long targeted Ms. Hirsi Ali. In 2004, she was the screenwriter for “Submission,” a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh about the plight of women in Islamic societies. Van Gogh was subsequently stabbed to death in the streets of Amsterdam by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Muslim.
The knife Bouyeri left in Van Gogh’s body pinned in place a note threatening Ms. Hirsi Ali with the same punishment.
Born and raised a Muslim, Ms. Hirsi Ali spent her formative years in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. As a child, she was herself the victim of genital mutilation, and as a young woman her parents attempted to marry her off to a cousin in Canada.
During a stopover in Europe, she fled to the Netherlands, where she was granted asylum, took citizenship and became a member of parliament. As she recounts in two riveting autobiographical books, “Nomad” and “Infidel,” she eventually decided to leave Europe for the United States, proudly becoming an American citizen last year.
Ms. Hirsi Ali charges that her detractors “have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work.” While that is no doubt the case, she has rendered some tough judgments on the religion she renounced 14 years ago. For example, in a 2007 interview with the libertarian magazine Reason, she said that at this point in history, “we are at war with Islam,” and that there is “no middle ground in wars.” She added that once Islam is “defeated it can mutate into something peaceful.”
Should such remarks disqualify her from being honored on an American campus? Brandeis has given an honorary degree to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu who, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz noted, has “a long history of ugly hatred toward the Jewish people.” Brandeis also has honored screenwriter Tony Kushner, who expressed the “wish” that modern Israel hadn’t been born. Are those views “consistent” with Brandeis’ “core values”?
In 2006, then-Brandeis President Jehuda Rinharz said the school — nonsectarian but named for Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and founded at a time when many American colleges discriminated against Jews — “does not select honorary-degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.” Evidently, that’s true for those who criticize Jews and the Jewish state, but not for those who criticize Muslims and the Islamic faith.
In The Wall Street Journal last week, Ms. Hirsi Ali published the remarks she had hoped to deliver to Brandeis graduates next month. Among the points she would have made:
“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. …
“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.
“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.
Perhaps Brandeis should change its motto to something more in line with its current “core values” — spineless and intolerant as those may be. Alternatively, the university could initiate some diligent and in-depth research on why America’s Founders believed in free speech, and why so many academics today betray that heritage.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.