Skip to main content

Brandeis' mistake on critic of Islam

By Timothy Stanley
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Brandeis University was cowardly to withdraw an honorary degree offer from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, says Tim Stanley.
Brandeis University was cowardly to withdraw an honorary degree offer from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, says Tim Stanley.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Brandeis withdrew honorary degree offer to Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • He says move runs counter to academic freedom, Brandeis shouldn't have withdrawn it
  • Had university vetted her, it would have seen her views on Islam are narrow, he says
  • Stanley: Hirsi Ali's views are deemed politically incorrect for good reason

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the forthcoming "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- First, Brandeis University offered an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of Islam. Then apparently when officials actually familiarized themselves with her writing after several complaints, they took the offer back this week.

One Fox News contributor calls it "an honor killing, Brandeis-style." That's crass, but the university's behavior is certainly disappointing. It smacks of cowardice, and Hirsi Ali can't be blamed for seeing it as an attack on her personal dignity.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

An act that was meant to honor her has been turned into an opportunity to shame her -- and, as she pointed out, "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." Indeed, the fear of creating offense is not compatible with academic freedom. On the contrary, criticizing society in the boldest terms possible is what intellectuals are there to do.

So Brandeis ought to have stood by its invitation. But there are some who would ask why it made the invitation in the first place. If the institution was worried about generating controversy, all it had to do was Google her name to discover that Hirsi Ali is a very controversial person. Indeed, her views fall well outside of the mainstream.

Hirsi Ali's story is undeniably moving. Born in Somalia, she was the victim of female genital mutilation at the age of 5 and was betrothed into an arranged marriage, which she escaped by seeking political asylum in the Netherlands. Thereafter she emerged as a forceful, politically engaged critic of Islam -- her memoir, "Infidel," is an extraordinary testament to the horrors that fundamentalism can wrought on an individual. Her ethnicity excuses her from the charge of racism; her politics is not reactionary but rather a very muscular variety of liberal universalism.

Tensions bubble up after soldier's death
No bail for anti-Islam filmmaker
Tenn. mosque critic: Not Islamophobia

However, the Islam that Hirsi Ali knew and denounces is a narrow cultural experience -- not the reality of the religion as a whole. There is no female genital mutilation in the Koran; tribes do it because it is a custom, not a legitimate religious instruction. Likewise, the extreme Islamism that threatens the West -- and against which the right campaigns -- is a small, geographically limited phenomenon that is almost unrelated to the considerably more liberal forms of Islam practiced in, say, Bangladesh or Europe.

It is true that Taliban Afghanistan or Iran have been theocratic, but this doesn't make Islam incompatible with democracy. Far from it: Muslim political protest has been the heart and soul of the Arab Spring. And Hirsi Ali's insistence that "violence is inherent in Islam" is absurd. Violence is inherent in all of humanity -- you only have to read the Judeo-Christian Old Testament to find that out.

And if violence was a purely Muslim thing, wouldn't we expect Muslims universally to hold fascistic views? On the contrary, evidence suggests that globally they lean toward democracy, pluralism and a qualified gender equality.

Moreover, Hirsi Ali's personal experience of life growing up in war-torn Africa is a million miles away from that lived among second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe. There the picture is one of integration, spoiled only by a handful of radicals who were tolerated by both the state and the Islamic community for far too long.

British journalist Fraser Nelson recently wrote a widely read piece pointing out that newspaper headlines about Islamic fundamentalism give a distorted view of religious relations in the United Kingdom. He noted, "Last year ... the Jews of Bradford were facing the closure of their synagogue. Its roof was leaking, and the few dozen remaining regulars could not afford the repairs ... As things turned out, the synagogue was saved after a fundraising campaign led by a local mosque. Zulfi Karim, the secretary of Bradford's Council of Mosques, now refers to (synagogue chairman Rudi) Leavor -- who fled the Nazis -- as his 'newfound brother.' "

When I wrote a piece in the same newspaper arguing that Islam was very close to Britishness in its obsession with good manners, hospitality and charity, I received dozens of abusive missives from white supremacists. It was a reminder that the flipside of Islamism is anti-Muslim hate. Which, I'm afraid to say, is given propaganda material by the well-dressed, middle-class intellectuals who appear so frequently on our televisions to pronounce that "violence is inherent in Islam."

All of which doesn't mean that Hirsi Ali should be driven from the public sphere. On the contrary, her story is a testament to the evil that does exist in the world, and Brandeis should have stood by its decision to honor her. The right to speak freely should never be tampered with. But in the conversation about the limits to this speech that has followed, let this one fact be remembered: Hirsi Ali's views are deemed politically incorrect for good reason.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT