Brandeis U offers honorary degree to Islam critic, then revokes it after campus backlash

By Scott Kaufman
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 11:13 EDT
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ali via american enterprise institute
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Brandeis University announced yesterday that former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s name had been withdrawn from the list of honorary degree recipients at its 2014 commencement.

While a member of the Dutch parliament, she collaborated with filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a film about the treatment of Muslim women in Holland. Shortly after the film’s release, van Gogh was stabbed to death, in broad daylight, by a man named Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri impaled a letter to van Gogh’s chest that was addressed to Ali, calling her a “fundamentalist unbeliever” and “soldier of evil,” and indicated that she would be targeted next. Dutch police placed her in protective custody, and in 2007 she emigrated to America to join the conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute.

Her forceful opposition to Islam has won her support among groups who rarely agree on anything: outspoken atheists and Islamophobic conservatives, both of whom see her anti-Islamic message as a service to their respective cause.

Ali is a controversial figure because of the strident manner in which she opposes not just Islamic fundamentalism, but Islam itself. For example, as Hemant Mehta wrote, “Ali mince[s] no words…when describing her goal of trying to defeat Islam as a whole because she didn’t believe the religion of peace was capable of being saved in its current form.”

“Ali, in her bestselling books Infidel and Nomad, made no secret of the fact that Islam, as interpreted by militants, extremists, and even (in some cases) casual believers, was not only untrue but harmful to the world,” he continued.

Ali’s positions on issues related to Islam are well known. But after the university announced she would be the recipient of an honorary degree, there was a sudden and concerted backlash against her on campus. Sarah Fahmy, a member of the Muslim Student Association, created a Change.org petition to have the honor revoked. “The selection of Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree is a blatant and callous disregard by the administration of not only the Muslim students, but of any student who has experienced pure hate speech,” Fahmy wrote. “It is a direct violation of Brandeis University’s own moral code as well as the rights of Brandeis students.”

“While we are not belittling the severity of the issues that [Ali] raises,” Fahmy continued, “she uses hate speech against Islam as a means to do this.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed Fahmy’s sentiments, writing a letter to Brandeis University president Frederick M. Lawrence in which he expressed “the American Muslim community’s concern about [his] decision to honor the notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree.”

“We believe,” the letter continued, that “offering such an award to a promoter of religious prejudice such as Ali is equivalent to promoting the work of white supremacists and anti-Semites. Granting her an honorary degree is unworthy of the American tradition of civil liberty and religious freedom represented by Chief Justice Louis Brandeis and the great university that carries his name.”

The Muslim Student Union at Brandeis wrote an op-ed in the campus paper, The Justice, in which they claimed that they saw the decision to give her the award “as a personal attack on Brandeis’ Muslim students, and as minorities at a predominately white, Jewish university, many of us feel isolated and unwelcomed.”

“We understand what Hirsi Ali has gone through. She has overcome horrific experiences in her lifetime, and she has the right to share her experiences however she sees will benefit society,” the op-ed continued.

“However, Hirsi Ali’s personal tragedies do not give her the absolute right to attack Islam as a religion.”

For its part, the university claimed ignorance of Ali’s views, saying that “we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

The other recipients of honorary degrees in 2014 are Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone; Eric Lander, the founding director and president of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard; Malcolm Sherman, who has served on the Brandeis University Board of Trustees for 33 years; and Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times.

[Image via American Enterprise Institute]

Scott Kaufman
Scott Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.