Last week, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was to have received an honorary degree at commencement in May.
Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch citizen, author, feminist, activist and outspoken critic of Islam. Her story, told in the memoir Infidel, is of a woman rejecting the culture in which she was raised and condemning it vociferously. An atheist and former Muslim, Hirsi Ali is categorically opposed to conventional Islamic approaches to women, particularly genital mutilation, to which Hirsi Ali was subjected at age 5. She has called for Islam to be “defeated,” not differentiating between “radical Islam” and the totality of the religion.
Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament and has received countless recognitions from organizations in Europe and the United States, including the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee. She has also received serious death threats – threats literally pinned with a knife to the body of murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.
Brandeis decided to cancel Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree after campus and outside activists expressed opposition to the honor. (The university alternatively invited Hirsi Ali to participate in a campus dialogue; she declined.) Critics argue that a speaker who uttered against any other religion the sorts of things Hirsi Ali says about Islam would not be welcomed on a respectable university’s campus.
But Hirsi Ali’s perspective comes largely from her personal experience. She is not an outsider whose views are clouded by ignorance and misperception. Her views, while controversial, are well-considered, rational and do not approach hate speech.
Reneging on an honorary degree adds a wrinkle of complexity. Commentators have condemned the rescinding of the honorary degree as a rejection of academic freedom and free expression. Others have said there is hypocrisy at play. Tony Kushner, the American playwright who calls the creation of Israel a “mistake” was honored by Brandeis University with an honorary degree, despite an outcry from Zionists. Why have similar outcries against Hirsi Ali been successful when those against Kushner were not? Is it because Israel is a more popular target than Islam, even at a Jewish-oriented university? Is it because Jewish institutions, conscious of the dangers of antisemitism, are more hesitant to approach anything that might approach prejudice toward other groups? The reasons hardly matter. A bigger issue is at play.
A university should be confident in their choice before they invite honorary degree recipients. Brandeis screwed up on that front and embarrassed themselves and their alumni by reversing the honor based on public complaints. At least one media outlet has called the school “cowardly.” Now the university – and others considering controversial speakers – must consider where their core values lie. Are universities to become a place where only time-tested and uncontroversial ideas are floated? Or are they to be the incubators of fresh ideas, spurred by contentious and free-ranging argumentation even on difficult, uncomfortable topics? A Jewish-oriented university especially should reflect the values of openness and debate that reflect our heritage. This incident should serve at the very least as a learning opportunity for Brandeis – and all places of higher learning and public discourse – about what intellectual exploration should truly mean.