Ayaan Hirsi Ali Won't Get Honorary Degree From Brandeis University After All
Brandeis University has announced they won't give an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the famed Somali-born former Dutch MP, on the basis of her strident anti-Islam views. They had been planning to bestow the honor on her during their May 18 commencement, in light of her dedication and advocacy for advancing women's global rights. Hirsi Ali is vehemently, ideological opposed to Islam, and is arguably the highest-profile woman of color, and former Muslim, to argue as such.
Upon the news of the impending honor, protest began to ripple through the university. A petition created by Sarah Fahmy, a member of the school's Muslim Student Association, garnered thousands of signatures, both from students and people outside the university, which pulled the issue squarely into the administration's attention. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also denounced Brandeis, calling it "unconscionable" considering Hirsi-Ali's "openly hateful views."
The line between frank free speech which might offend, and open hatred or bigotry, is to some extent interpretive. But it's an interpretation Hirsi Ali does invite — she has a long record of speaking against Islam as a violent, existential threat, and in a 2007 interview cited by The Guardian, she mused about being "at war" with the religion:
Once it's 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.
It's fitting, in a sense, that two such central facts about Hirsi Ali's biography — her commitment to women's rights, and her unapologetic, inflaming condemnations of the Islamic faith — would intersect here so explosively, given that they're inextricably linked within the context of her experiences.
Her personal history, detailed in her 2006 memoir Infidel, is a deeply harrowing one, which clearly informs her opinions about her former faith, especially as related to treatment of women.
Her experiences provide a rich personal story, thick with crucial insight into problematic and brutal conditions faced by millions of young girls. This is never underscored more sharply than in her account of suffering forced genital mutilation at age five, against the wishes of her imprisoned father, at the behest of her fundamentalist grandmother.
Her adult life has also been irrevocably altered by the intersection of fundamentalist faith and feminism. In 2004, she collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a film called Submission, which focused on criticism of Islamic treatment of women, only to see him murdered as a consequence.
That's not to say that her arguments are explicitly driven by emotion or personal trauma, to be clear. There's a way of pathologizing other people's motives which many women, especially those with deeply-held or controversial views, know all too well in public discourse.
Hirsi Ali has made it clear that she doesn't regard her views about Islam as byproducts of her dismal experiences as a child. As such, her views are of her own reason and mind, and should can be fairly judged on their merits.
And according to Brandeis, that judgement is now thanks, but no thanks.
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.