After Backlash from Muslim Groups, Brandeis University Will No Longer Be Giving an Honorary Degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Last week, Brandeis University announced that it would be awarding honorary degrees to five notable figures, including atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her advocacy of women’s rights around the world:

Hirsi Ali, in her bestselling books Infidel and Nomad, made no secret of the fact that Islam, as interpreted by militants, extremists, and even (in some cases) casual believers, was not only untrue but harmful to the world. Between female genital mutilation, honor killings, the idea of martyrdom, and the murder of her friend Theo van Gogh, you can understand why she has courageously put her own life on the line to speak out against the horrors of the faith. In her mind (and many atheists agree), the problem isn’t radical Islam. It’s Islam, period. Much like how Sam Harris criticized religious moderates in The End of Faith for providing cover to the extremists, Hirsi Ali minced no words in a 2007 interview when describing her goal of trying to defeat Islam as a whole because she didn’t believe the religion of peace was capable of being saved in its current form.

Almost immediately after the announcement of her honorary degree, Muslim groups began to protest her selection.

A petition at Change.org started by a Muslim student asked:

How can an Administration of a University that prides itself on social justice and acceptance of all make a decision that targets and disrespects it’s own students? This is hurtful to the Muslim students and the Brandeis community who stand for social justice.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed those sentiments and went even further by comparing Hirsi Ali to white supremacists and anti-Semites:

We believe offering such an award to a promoter of religious prejudice such as Ali is equivalent to promoting the work of white supremacists and anti-Semites. Granting her an honorary degree is unworthy of the American tradition of civil liberty and religious freedom represented by Justice Louis Brandeis and the great university that carries his name.

While Ali is free to spew anti-Muslim hate –- including her call for violence against the entire Muslim world — in any venue she chooses, she does not have a similar right to be honored for that hate by a prestigious university.

The Brandeis Muslim Student Association wrote in an op-ed in the student newspaper:

There is a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech. Hirsi Ali has shamelessly passed this boundary as her remarks no longer regard her experiences, but rather condemn an entire religion and other minorities as a result of her prejudices and biases. Instead of encouraging respectful discussions and debates, she incites and supports insensitivity and irresponsibility by abusing freedom of speech as a way to justify her hate speech.

The Justice‘s editorial board took that side as well:

… her derogatory comments toward Islam warrant a closer look at the administration’s choice to award her a degree. In her 2010 memoir Nomad: From Islam to America, Hirsi Ali states that Islam is “not compatible with the modern Westernised way of living,” that “violence is an integral part [of Islam],” and that “Muhammad’s example is terrible, don’t follow it.” These comments ignore the fact that there are multiple views of Islam, insist that violence is inherent in Islam and that one culture is fundamentally better than another.

By presenting Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree, the University applauds all aspects of her work. An honorary degree validates the good she has done for women’s rights, yet it also condones the comments she has made against Islam, and therefore against a valued portion of our community.

Obviously, there are multiple views of Islam. But the Koran doesn’t change and Hirsi Ali’s criticism is directed at those who follow it literally. And yes, you don’t have to go far out on a limb to admit that a culture that values women and doesn’t engage in genital mutilation or honor killings or martyrdom is superior to ones that do.

And this idea that an honorary degree “applauds all aspects” of someone’s work is bullshit. President George W. Bush received one from Yale University in 2001. I promise you very few people there were applauding every decision he’s ever made. But that’s how honorary degrees work. They’re given to people who have accomplished incredible things. Hirsi Ali, who has overcome so much religion-based strife and pain in her life and has written about it so beautifully and powerfully, certainly belongs in that group.

It takes a very uncharitable interpretation of Hirsi Ali’s words to think her goal of “defeating Islam” means we should commit violence against peaceful law-abiding Muslims or descends into hate speech. Her goal is full-scale reform of Islam, not genocide against all Muslims. She’s said in other interviews that, while she may be “ungraceful” with some of her words, they’re aimed at radicals. She, like many of the “New Atheists,” believes religion is part of the problem and we need to break people of its spell. That means, among other things, getting people away from the literal words in the Koran.

In any case, Brandeis caved in to the pressure. They announced today that Hirsi Ali would no longer be receiving the honorary degree:

Following a discussion today between President Frederick Lawrence and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement. 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.

It’s a disappointing withdrawal. Brandeis officials should have stuck by their original decision. Hirsi Ali has done incredible work to expose and end religious-based violence against women through her books and foundation. Any accolades she receives are well-earned.

To suggest that she’s “Islamophobic” or on par with true bigots is to completely misunderstand the nature of her work.

***Update***: Sam Harris, who has often been accused of the same thought crimes as Hirsi Ali, just tweeted this in her support:


***Update 2***: Richard Dawkins weighed in earlier today:


***Update 3***: Hirsi Ali has responded to the rescinding of her honorary degree:

Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

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.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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