Brandeis withdraws honorary degree offer to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Brandeis University originally invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree at its spring commencement, and created a storm of controversy on its campus. It has now withdrawn that offer, and may have created a storm of controversy outside of its campus as well. The former Dutch parliamentarian has long spoken out against the excesses of Islam, from her own painful personal experience to the radicalism that fuels terrorism and war. Apparently, Brandeis just figured this out, which raises a number of questions:

The university said in a statement posted online that the decision had been made after a discussion between Ali and university President Frederick Lawrence.

“She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” said the university’s statement. “That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”

Ali, a member of the Dutch Parliament from 2003 to 2006, has been quoted as making comments critical of Islam. That includes a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine in which she said of the religion, “Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”

Ali was raised in a strict Muslim family, but after surviving a civil war, genital mutilation, beatings and an arranged marriage, she renounced the faith in her 30s. She has not commented publicly on the issue of the honorary degree.

In 2007, Ali helped establish the AHA Foundation, which works to protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture, according to its website. The foundation also strives to protect basic rights and freedoms of women and girls. This includes control of their own bodies, access to an education and the ability to work outside the home and control their own income, the website says.

So, first question: What did Brandeis intend when it offered Ali the degree in the first place? After all, her mission has been pretty clear over the last decade or so. There does not appear to be an alternate line of activism or scholarship taken up by Ali in the intervening time, so presumably Brandeis intended to honor her work in this field. Second question: What changed?

That brings us to the third question. Did no one at Brandeis bother to Google Ali before offering her the degree? Her speeches don’t pull punches about her perspectives on Islam and its practices. It’s a little late in 2014 for President Lawrence to be shocked, shocked at “certain of her past statements” in relation to the work that they apparently wanted to honor.

To answer the second question — because so far, questions one and three don’t lend themselves to answers other than incompetence — what changed is that the faculty erupted in outrage when it saw Ali on the list. Out of 350 faculty, “more than 85” signed a petition demanding her removal from the honors list. The petition was started by the Muslim Students Association, which should have been easily foreseen by Brandeis in the first place. If popular opposition was enough to cancel the offer, then Brandeis shouldn’t have made it in the first place. Now, they look both incompetent and pusillanimous.

With that said, a couple of points should be noted. When Notre Dame invited abortion-supporting Barack Obama to speak at their commencement and presented him with an honorary degree, Catholics — including myself — heavily criticized them for doing so. At the time, I objected to the degree, which gave a tacit imprimatur to Obama’s abortion stand, while many others wanted the appearance canceled as well. Mary Ann Glendon refused to attend the ceremony and accept her Laetare award. Notre Dame’s Catholic students erupted in outrage too, but that didn’t keep Notre Dame from offering Obama their platform and their honorary degree. No one is entitled to an honorary degree or a commencement-speech platform, and when a university offers that to one who arguably promotes the antithesis of its mission, criticism is well justified.

The question here, of course, is whether that’s true with Brandeis and Ali. For some reason, Brandeis thought it didn’t and then thought it did. Brandeis did offer to host Ali to speak at the university:

Commencement is about celebrating and honoring our extraordinary students and their accomplishments, and we are committed to providing an atmosphere that allows our community’s focus to be squarely on our students. In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.

I’d agree that commencement should focus on the students, rather than on the guests. That’s an argument for not making these offers in the first place, not offering and then withdrawing them when the heat gets turned up. If Brandeis wants to make amends, they should dispense with this ambiguous offer and actively work to schedule an appearance so that she can make her case directly to the Brandeis community.