Dave Silverman: ‘For the First Time in My Life, I Am Ashamed of My Association with Brandeis University’

Dave Silverman, writing for himself (and not as the President of American Atheists), just posted an open letter to Fred Lawrence, President of Brandeis University, in response to their offering and rescinding an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Silverman is a graduate of the university.

Dear Mr. Lawrence,

I remember well my years attending Brandeis University. I remember the classes, the teachers, the students, and even the food. But perhaps most of all, I remember the activism.

I remember the student tables in Usdan pushing a diverse set of agendas. I remember the Republicans and Democrats; I remember Triskelion promoting awareness of LGBT issues. I remember a speech by Meir Kahane, who actively preached the murder of Muslims in Israel, proclaiming “violence is not the road to peace, but it is the road to survival.” I remember a student-made and staffed shanty-town protesting Brandeis’ investment in South Africa during Apartheid, and the pride I felt when Brandeis wisely divested.

Today, that pride is gone as Brandeis has caved to religious intolerance masquerading as political correctness and uninvited a valuable voice in the discussion of religion in public life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ms. Hirsi Ali is not “hateful” as some have claimed, nor does she promote violence. She is an eloquent spokesperson for the millions of women and children worldwide who live under the tyrannical thumb of Islam, as she did as a child. She speaks out in defense of justice, equality, and freedom of expression for all people. She speaks for me.

My education at Brandeis has, in no small way, allowed me to rise to the position of president of American Atheists. My job, and indeed my reason for waking up in the morning, is to fight for the rights of those whose voices too often go unheard in the forum of public debate. Those whose most basic freedoms are crushed by theocratic regimes throughout the world.

Addressing some of the most fundamental questions about human rights, particularly the rights of self-determination and free expression, is complex and difficult. When entrenched religious beliefs are used to justify cruel, immoral actions against hundreds of millions of people, we have an obligation to speak out. The criticism of religious beliefs has, in recent years, become taboo for some. This taboo, perhaps, has grown as a result of the privilege we have to live in places where diversity and the agency of individuals is paramount. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s experiences, however, are different.

Her background allows her to speak with clarity about one of the most challenging questions of our time: whether a robust commitment to equality, diversity, dialogue, and social justice is possible when we look the other way when confronted with the realities of Islamic extremism.

What you have done to Ms. Hirsi Ali is rob her of such an opportunity. You have robbed her of the opportunity to speak to Brandeis students about her lived experiences as a child in Somalia and Kenya. You have ended the “dialogue about these important issues” before it has even begun.

I find it inconceivable that you elected to invite her to speak and honor her with a degree without knowing what she stands for and what she has said about the destructive role that religion in general, and Islam in particular, plays in the well-being of women. What you have done is cave to the pressure of those who wish to censor the realities of the lived experiences of a brave woman.

No new information has changed your mind; you chose to stand with those who would rather ignore Ms. Hirsi Ali than to engage with her and with the very real problems she fights.

Recent polling indicates that fully one-third of college-aged Americans are non-religious. Many are atheists. We stand for freedom of expression and of conscience. We stand for the right to criticize all institutions and ideas, including the ones that some hold most dear. We support the rights of all people to live without being married off as children or having their genitals mutilated in the name of “culture” or religion.

I abhor your decision to withdraw your invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religiously motivated deserves recognition and honor. You have chosen instead to side with people who see criticism of religion as a crime.

Today, you have done nothing to “safeguard the safety, dignity, and well-being” of the members of our global community. You have only prevented a powerful voice for such action from being heard by your students. And you have done so in perhaps the most cowardly and dishonorable ways possible.

For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of my association with Brandeis University. Accordingly, I am withdrawing my membership in the Alumni Association, ending financial support of the University, and encouraging others to do the same.

I question whether Brandeis is still a place in which all ideas are open for discussion. No worldview, political position, and certainly no religion is above criticism. I will encourage students who value activism, diversity, and freedom of expression to choose educational opportunities other than Brandeis. Until Ms. Hirsi Ali receives an apology from the University, I will continue to question your professed commitment to these values.

It is my hope that Brandeis again becomes a place that thrives on diversity and dialogue and returns to its history of unapologetic activism and social justice, even in the face of criticism and adversity.

Goodbye, Brandeis.

Sincerely,

Dave Silverman ‘88

Even after hearing a number of views supporting the university’s decision, I’m no closer to siding with them than I was a couple of nights ago. I just don’t believe the statement from school officials that they were “not aware of these statements earlier” before choosing to give her an honorary degree. She’s never made a secret of it.

Her words are harshly critical of Islam, but you know what? Good. Let’s have that discussion. Too many people are afraid to criticize religious ideas and the awful consequences of accepting them because they wrongly believe religion inherently deserves respect. Hirsi Ali, among others, has convinced a lot of us that no religion should be given a free pass, and that Islam, moreso than other faiths, has caused too much harm in our society regardless of its benefits. If that’s too personal for some, that’s too bad.

For the work she’s done to help women around the world through her foundation and to open the eyes of those blinded by faith through her books and speeches, she’s proven herself worthy of any number of honors. This almost-degree surely won’t be the last one she receives.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.


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