In an episode eerily similar to last year’s Robert Zoellick meltdown at Swarthmore, Brandeis University this week withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Harvard scholar and critic of Islam, following an all-too familiar outcry of “Oppression!” from incensed students and faculty. It’s a sad day for a university that takes its name from one of history’s greatest defenders of free speech.
Hirsi Ali is a native Somalian who underwent forced genital mutilation at the age of five. After fleeing the Middle East, she renounced her Muslim faith and became an atheist in 2002. Following that, she wrote and narrated the film “Submission,” which aimed to depict the plight of women in the Islamic world. After seeing her director murdered and receiving death threats herself, she moved to the United States and founded the AHA Foundation, a women’s-rights organization.
In its official statement, Brandeis repeats a tired argument used so often nowadays to justify trampling on free expression: “[W]e cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”
If universities snubbed every individual whose views or statements violated some nebulous set of “values,” there would be little room left for any sort of productive discussion. It’s shameful that Brandeis would see it fit to censor someone whose views, while arguably extreme in some regards, have directly challenged the status quo in many parts of the world, and whose experiences are a wake-up call to anyone concerned with the state of human rights abroad.
The Boston Globe reports on Hirsi Ali’s response to Brandeis’ decision.
‘I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin,’ Hirsi Ali wrote. ‘For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings, and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices.’
Hirsi Ali rejected the university’s invitation to discuss such issues on campus, saying she did not wish to participate in ‘one-sided dialogue.’
‘Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece,” she wrote. “I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck—and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.’
We can only hope, as Ms. Hirsi Ali surely does, that the American higher education system will eventually realize that building a better society requires respect for freedom of expression. Being made uncomfortable, perhaps even by views that contradict our most deeply held values, is a central part of any learning experience. Ms. Hirsi Ali is fighting for basic liberties in Somalia. Let’s be sure to protect the ones we’re so fortunate to have in America.