Brandeis University screwed up

Brandeis invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch legislator, to be its 2014 commencement speaker; she was to be awarded an honorary doctorate, yet eight days later, Brandeis rescinded the offer.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Brandeis University screwed up. There seems to be wide agreement on that, from both the left and the right. What the left and right don’t agree on is what it was that Brandeis got wrong.
Brandeis invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch legislator to be its 2014 commencement speaker. She was to be awarded an honorary doctorate as part of the ceremony. Eight days after announcing her selection Brandeis rescinded the offer, saying university officials were not aware of her more controversial views on Islam, which they felt were not in accord with the values of Brandeis.
It’s easy to see why Hirsi Ali was chosen as a speaker for Brandeis. Billed as “the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the country [America],” Brandeis has close connections to Israel; the university has a center for Israel studies and an Israel studies journal. Hirsi Ali is an African woman of Muslim descent who is an outspoken supporter of Israel. In a 2006 interview with The Jerusalem Post, she said, “The crisis of Dutch socialism can be sized up in its attitudes toward both Islam and Israel. It holds Israel to exceptionally high moral standards. The Israelis, however, will always do well, because they themselves set high standards for their actions. The standards for judging the Palestinians, however, are very low...Those who live in the territories are not allowed to say anything about this because they risk being murdered by their own people.” She is considered a hero by many because she was forced to go into hiding because of her outspoken criticism of Islam. The Dutch government spent millions of Euros on security for her.
Her outspoken criticism of Islam is also what prompted Brandeis to decide to rescind their offer of an honorary degree. While most political/social commentators are careful to criticize “radical Islam,” or “fundamentalist Islam,” Hirsi Ali has in the past dispensed with the qualifiers and said to Reason magazine that it’s not just “radical Islam that must be defeated. Rather it’s Islam, period. 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." She even had the temerity to criticize Muhammad: “Measured by our western standards, Muhammad is a pervert. He is against freedom of expression. If you don't do as he says, you will be punished.”
Given her views on Islam, it’s not surprising that soon after the announcement of her being selected for an honor the university found itself at the center of controversy with threats from groups saying they would block the commencement ceremony. Critics included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). A petition circulated on the website, which collected over 10,000 signatures. In the face of mounting criticism, the university pulled the offer and issued a statement that said: “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. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”
While some liberals cheered the decision to rescind the offer of a degree, conservatives were appalled by the seeming censorship of “politically incorrect” opinions.
The Jerusalem Post called on the university to change its mind again because there’s nothing wrong with criticizing Islam: an editorial cited a 14th century work of Islamic law as proof that Islam supports “reprehensible practices.” Never mind that there are plenty of 14th century – or even 21st century – Jewish sources that could be used to slander Judaism.
One of the more interesting commentaries on the debate came from Nesrine Malik, who, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, wrote that those who want to frame the debate about Hirsi Ali as a free speech issue need to also allow other forms of “free speech” including homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.
But this isn’t a free speech issue. The president of the university, Frederick Lawrence, said, “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.” There’s a difference between just giving a speech or a lecture and receiving an honorary degree. It is appropriate for a university to reserve honorary degrees for people it deems to be exemplars of the values of the institution.
Which brings us back to the matter of Brandeis’ screw up. Given the facts in the case, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the administration at Brandeis is either incompetent or lacking in conviction.
The anti-Islam positions of Hirsi Ali quoted here did not take digging. They are on her Wikipedia page. Either the administrators of the university didn’t do the most rudimentary of vetting of Hirsi Ali before extending the invitation – a five minute Google search – or they did the vetting, decided to invite her, and then changed their minds in the face of criticism. Either way, the administration of Brandeis is to blame for outraging people across the political spectrum. It should apologize to everyone.
Barry Leff is an entrepreneur and rabbi who lives and works in Jerusalem.