The Magazine

Tarnished Brandeis

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week, Brandeis University withdrew the honorary degree it was going to bestow next month on human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. According to a statement from Brandeis, “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”

Tarnished Brandeis

The Somali-born former member of the Dutch parliament has made it her life’s work to speak out about how radical Islam enables the barbaric treatment of women—treatment that she herself was once subject to. But as it turns out, criticizing radical Islam violates the modern academy’s perverse commitment to “diversity” and “tolerance”—even when the critic is an African feminist icon. 

The decision was appalling and inconsistent with how Brandeis has handled controversy over other honorees. In 2006, the school came under fire for having bestowed an honorary degree on playwright Tony Kushner. This caused considerable angst for supporters of the school, because Kushner was on record saying, “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.” Brandeis went ahead with the award, and issued this statement from the university president in its defense: “Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.”

This was obviously a lie at the time the statement was issued, and in light of Brandeis’s treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it seems a particularly bald-faced one at that. Unfortunately, dishonesty seems to be a habit among recent Brandeis presidents. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s statement below makes clear, Brandeis University president Frederick Lawrence was both cowardly and disingenuous in caving to Hirsi Ali’s opponents:


When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. 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. 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. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation—lines from interviews taken out of context—designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.

What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The “spirit of free expression” referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.

Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me “to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.” Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to “engage” in such one-sided dialogue. 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.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed women and girls everywhere.

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