Waltham, MA. based Brandeis University will not honor Somali born Dutch critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university had previously planned to award the former member of the Netherlands’ Parliament on May 18, during the annual graduation ceremony. However the University reversed its decision following complaints over Hirsi Ali’s sometimes overt criticisms of her former religion. The decision to not present her with an honorary degree has received some controversy.
Brandeis University issued a statement after its decision to not offer the honorary degree. The school declared that while the would-be recipient is a valued advocate for women’s rights, it would “not overlook her past statements,” referring to Hirsi Ali’s criticisms of the world’s second largest religion. The university stated that she would still be welcome to defend her position in on-campus dialogues.
The university received signatures asking not to award Ms. Hirsi Ali from over 85 of its 350 faculty members; an additional 5,800 signatures were made online from people both within the university, and the outside. Member of the Muslim Student Association, Sarah Falmy, referred to the proposed honor as a “slap in the face,” to Muslims. The Muslim Student Association created the petition of revoke Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree. Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) spokesman Ibrahim Hooper had described the award as “unconscionable” and the Dutch woman’s statements “hateful.” One school official stated presenting her with an award could make Muslim students feel unwelcome.
On the other hand. there had been some support from others however. 1979 Brandeis alumnus Bernard Macy thanked the university for hosting Hirsi Ali, saying she defended women against Islamic violence. Brandeis may now face criticism for inviting, then uninviting her to speak; The New York Times mentions that still others may be displeased at what they see as a school backing down to aggressive Muslim activists. Brandeis University’s Chairman of American Studies, Thomas Doherty, stated that the school should be honored to host the now world-famous critic; he is one of the faculty that would not sign the petition.
When speaking of the religion of her childhood, the former parliamentarian stated that the West is at war with Islam, and that the religion of her upbringing has no interest in peace anyway. Hirsi Ali was raised in a strict Somali Muslim family. However, after that country’s civil war, an arranged marriage, and physical abuse, all of which she connects to Islam, she renounced the religion altogether. She has also gone so far as to describe the religion of her upbringing “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” In 2004 Hirsi Ali wrote the screenplay “Submission,” which documents treatment of women in the Islamic world. She now considers herself an atheist.
Colleges and universities often invite controversial speakers and critics such as Hirsi Ali to offer their opinion on campus. However, the concern is often that to offer such people an honorary degree is akin to endorsing the speaker’s beliefs. Brandeis University, located outside of Boston, MA. was founded in 1948 as a non-sectarian Jewish university, and apparently does not enforce any religious code. The student body belongs to a myriad of religions, including Islam.
By Ian Erickson