A story making headlines today is coming from Brandeis University, which has decided not to confer an honorary degree on noted women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose greatest claim to fame at this time is her outspoken criticism of Islam. Some of Ali’s comments have been characterized as hate speech, not only by Muslims and Muslim organizations, but by the students of the university itself, who protested against honoring her and won. But despite all the controversy and statements to the press from all sides, perhaps the most important thing Brandeis University has done with the controversy over their decision against an honorary degree for Ali has been to create more dialogue around how we honor critics of religion and what criticisms are actually allowable in society today.
There have been many critics of religion with large followings. Prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens spring to mind. They both popularized a critique of religion based around reason and science that many people have been attracted to, even religious people themselves. The comic actor Stephen Fry is also an outspoken opponent of religion, who once argued against the Catholic church alongside Hitchens at an Intelligence2 debate. These men have had their share of honors and controversies, but nothing quite like what is happening around Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ali has been a critic of Islam as part of her work for women’s rights. Some of the reason she has done so is because of the traditions of Islam that lead to female genital mutilation and forced marriage, both of which she strenuously denounces having experienced them herself. The Somali-born activist was herself raised in a strict Muslim household and now identifies as an atheist. Like anyone raised in religion, she has a particular insiders’ view of it and uses that knowledge in her arguments against it. That is a theme often repeated in the lives of critics of religion, but it is not quite as often that those criticisms get labeled hate speech.
The comments that have led to Ali being labeled an “Islamaphobe” are many. She has stated that she wants all Muslim schools closed because they teach intolerance and fascism. She has called Muslims “hypersensitive” to criticism. She has also said that until Islam is “defeated,” it cannot be a peaceful religion, though she was not specific about what form that defeat should take. It is comments like these, which she claims are taken out of context be her detractors, that have earned her the moniker of Islamaphobe and a distributor of hate speech.
This is what led students, led by faculty and the Brandeis Muslim Students Association, to protest and eventually effect the reversal of the honorary degree which would have been conferred at commencement in May of this year. Muslim students of the university claimed that the announcement of the degree was a slap in the face, made them uncomfortable to exist on a campus that would support such a person, and was incompatible with the core values of the university, which include, “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.” In a statement released by the university, it affirmed that her statements were inconsistent with their values and played a part in the decision not to honor her.
The narrative of the decision making process on Brandeis’ campus is common and reflects what the right of free speech can do. Without that right, the outraged students and faculty would not have been able to have a voice on the issue at all. But how can the issue be understood more broadly than just the college campus? Stories about religion, like this one over an honorary degree decision, which have such charged moral and emotional arguments on both sides are sure to create dialogue, which Brandeis has encouraged by inviting Ali to speak on campus in the future. They are hot topics that people everywhere like to debate and discuss.
Parts of that discussion may take the form of pure religious argument. Ali herself has called Muslims “hypersensitive” and compared them to Christians who, she says, take criticism like hers with a shrug. The implication is that if Christians can take it, Muslims should be able to take it as well. The opposite of this argument, however, can be that Christians and Muslim do not have the same status in the world. Christianity is considered a mainstream religion, at least in most Western Countries, and as such enjoys the rights of the privileged majority. In the United States, a lot is made of the country’s Christian heritage. Criticizing the majority does not necessarily hurt the majority which, from its position of privilege and power, can easily afford to ignore such strident criticism. If someone were to say that Christianity had to be defeated, the most response it might get is, “That guy is crazy.”
In Western countries, however, Islam is mostly not considered a mainstream religion. It falls into the minority category, which does not enjoy a position of privilege. Attacking a minority in the ways that Ali has done is to add more burden of injury on an already burdened group. Islamaphobia is problem in America, whose war on terror has led some to an extreme view of Islam as nothing more than a collection of terrorists. As many have said, including President Bush who insisted that the United States was not at war with Islam, religious extremism is not the full story of Islam. Therefore, Ali’s comments, however they were meant, are perceived as adding to the persecution the minority already experiences.
That is one form the discussion around Ali and Brandeis University’s decision can take. There are many, many arguments about the issue that range from full on support of Ali to full on condemnation. In a charged environment like America, whose relationship with Islam has seen many serious ups and downs, this incident is nothing more than one in a long line of such moments that further the topic. It is hard to say which side is actually the right side and, perhaps for the purposes of progress, no such judgment should be made too hastily. Some have already expressed their full support for Ali publicly, calling Brandeis’ actions cowardly. Others, such as the Council for American-Muslim Relations has applauded the decision. Taking sides is the nature of controversy.
But one thing is for sure in this whole story. There is still a debate to be had over Islam and its role in Western society. Ali has argued that the two are completely incompatible. For that criticism, she herself is now criticized. This kind of back and forth is necessary for progress and this story proves that there is still a lot of progress to be made. No matter what someone’s opinion may be about Brandeis University’s decision to rescind their honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they have created a wide-ranging dialogue over an issue of religion that still bears looking into today. Perhaps a greater good can come out of that than just an honor conferred could give.
Opinion By Lydia Webb