Brandeis and Double Standards
6:01 PM, May 12, 2014 • By JAY BERGMAN
Support for the decision of Brandeis University not to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, after previously announcing it would do so, has coalesced around the notion that while Islamic radicalism can be criticized, even condemned, one cannot criticize Islam itself. By condemning both, and by implying strongly that Radical Islam and Islam are indistinguishable, Ms. Ali—so the argument goes—not only does not deserve an honorary degree; she is, in fact, a bigot.
Ms. Ali’s critics are wrong. At the very least, radical Islam is just as valid a version of Islam as any other, and may even be more valid because it takes the commands of Sharia law literally, which is to say in a way that is consistent with the ordinary meaning of words. Moreover, Sharia is based on the Koran, which is considered the word of God, and thus something with which no Muslim can disagree and to which no Muslim can object.
And what does adherence to Sharia require? One among many barbarous demands is that apostates like Ms. Ali be killed. True, millions of Muslims do not take the requirement literally. But millions of Muslims do. And I am unaware of any Muslim state or organization in the United States, such as the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), denouncing practices such as this, as a result of which people are murdered, or, as in Ms. Ali's case, threatened with death. Perhaps Ms. Ali should have phrased her condemnation of the barbarism she considers typical of Islam today in slightly less sweeping, less categorical language, and acknowledged that many Muslims either believe apostates should be killed but choose not to act on their belief, or for whatever reason reject this particular injunction. But I doubt that her doing so would have mollified CAIR and the defenders of Brandeis who consider any criticism of Islam somehow beyond the pale of reasoned discourse. Instead they consider it evidence of "Islamophobia," the pervasiveness of which, since 9/11, groups like CAIR have grossly exaggerated.
Why should a religion—as opposed to any other system of thought and action—be immune to criticism or condemnation?
Islam is not some pristine, disembodied entity, like a Platonic form that exists independently of those who practice it. The Christianity that existed in Europe during the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation was different from what it is today. And what made it different was not the theology itself but rather how the theology was interpreted. The same could be said about Judaism. Some of the injunctions in the Jewish Bible, taken literally, could be conducive to violence; Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered twenty-nine innocent Muslims on the West Bank, may well have justified what he did on precisely such grounds. But is there any evidence that Jews beyond a lunatic fringe act on the basis of such injunctions or that such actions, when they occur, are condoned by the vast majority of Jews? There is not. Goldstein's homicidal rampage was condemned by every faction on the Israeli political spectrum, and by every major American Jewish organization.
That is hardly the case for Islamic states and organizations. CAIR not only refuses to condemn specifics acts of Muslim violence. Like the fifty-six member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, it seeks to criminalize any criticism of Islam as a form of blasphemy. Perhaps in four hundred years Islam will be as pacific as Christianity is today; there is no large body of Christians anywhere in the world bent on imposing it forcibly on others. It may be inconvenient to say so, but millions of Muslims today seek the destruction of Western civilization; should they succeed, not only freedom of religion but the other freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights will disappear. Islam, as expressed in Sharia, is not just a religion but a way of life, one that Ms. Ali’s critics, if they examined it honestly and carefully, might find inconsistent with the freedoms they currently enjoy by virtue of living in the West. To the extent that Ms. Ali calls attention to this threat to our civilization, she deserves praise, not opprobrium.
But even if one accepts the view that the Muslims Ms. Ali condemns are not representative of Islam, there is no reason why her courageous battle for women’s rights—of which many of her detractors claim to approve—cannot be divorced from her views on Islam. In the case of Desmond Tutu, on whom Brandeis conferred an honorary degree even after he called Israel a Nazi state, the university made precisely the distinction it has refused to make in Miss Ali’s case—namely honoring Tutu for his struggle against apartheid in South Africa while (one hopes) tacitly rejecting his anti-Semitic bigotry.
In fact, Tutu's smear of Israel is far worse—far more vicious, far more absurd, far more defamatory, far more indicative of bigotry—than anything Ms. Ali has said about Islam. Her opinions, unlike Tutu's, are grounded in evidence. Millions of Muslim girls have had their genitals mutilated. Many are the victims of honor killings. Many have been forced to marry persons they did not wish to marry. But there is nothing that Israel has done in the sixty-six years of its existence that is even remotely comparable to Nazism. (It goes without saying that when bigots say that Israel is like Nazi Germany, what they have in mind is not the construction of the autobahns or the achievement of full employment.)
But of course when Tutu was awarded an honorary degree, the Brandeis faculty who now malign Ms. Ali were mute. The double standard and hypocrisy this suggests is repulsive. The fact that when Tutu received his honorary degree he did not—on the day he received the degree—smear Israel is true but trivial. The same applies to the playwright Tony Kushner, another recipient of a Brandeis honorary degree, whose claim that the most repugnant American Jews are those who strongly support Israel is the kind of ad hominem attack one would expect from a hyperactive undergraduate, not the recipient of an honorary degree. Kushner, of course, provided no evidence for his smear because none exists.
As for the argument that awarding Ms. Ali an honorary degree might cause discomfort for Muslim students who disagree with her, the proper response is that that should not trump academic debate and discussion, without which the central obligation of the university—the dispassionate and disinterested pursuit of truth—cannot be fulfilled. Ensuring that all students always feel comfortable when their religion, or any other aspect of their lives, is discussed and evaluated is to ensure that universities have no students at all. Feeling uncomfortable when opinions contrary to one’s own are expressed is an integral part of college, and an inescapable part of life.
Notwithstanding Ms. Ali’s critics, her supposed intolerance is actually laudable because what she is intolerant of is intolerance itself. And in purely human terms, her willingness to risk her life pursuing the laudable objective of saving the lives of Muslim women—they constitute 91 percent of the victims of honor killings in the world today—fully justifies her receiving an honorary degree. (Of course courage alone is hardly cause for awarding honorary degrees. Were that the case, they would be given to persons who climbed Mount Everest.)
Finally, one can only describe as unbelievable the claim of Frederick Lawrence, the president of Brandeis, that no one in the his administration knew anything of Ms. Ali's views on Islam prior to the demands of CAIR and a significant minority of Brandeis faculty that Ms. Ali be denied the honorary degree she had previously been promised. But even if his claim is true, Brandeis should not have yielded.
Given the outcry outside of academia that followed Lawrence’s decision, the absence of comparable condemnation from within it might seem incredible to persons unfamiliar with the shibboleths of political correctness that constitute the conventional wisdom in academia today. But the reason for this silence is not hard to find: college campuses are liberal-left echo chambers almost totally devoid of dissenting (i.e. conservative) opinions. With a fanaticism that borders on the pathological, American colleges and universities seek cosmetic diversity, but not intellectual diversity, which is the only kind of diversity that matters in higher education.
Jay Bergman is a graduate of Brandeis University and a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.
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