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Posted by on Apr 10, 2014 in Huffington Post | 4 comments

Brandeis Gets it Right on Islam

Brandeis Gets it Right on Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
(Tony Bock/Toronto Star)

Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored university and my alma mater, has withdrawn its offer to give an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, Brandeis changed its mind eight days after announcing the honor to Ms. Hirsi Ali, who was born in Somalia and served in the Dutch Parliament. The president of Brandeis, Fred Lawrence, said in his announcement of the change that “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”

In this case, Brandeis got it right. Ms. Ali has referred to Islam as “the new fascism” and “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and has said that “violence is inherent in Islam.”

“We are at war with Islam,” she has proclaimed, asserting that it must be defeated.

Others have pointed out — and I am quick to admit — that Ms. Hirsi Ali has an inspiring personal history and has done much in her life that is heroic. And she personally has suffered at the hands of radical and extremist elements of the Muslim world. That such elements exist is beyond question. Terrorists and fanatic religious groups in Muslim countries often dominate the media; when they kill and torture in the name of God, they hijack Islam in the process, subverting its image by professing to speak in its name.

But in this instance, none of that is relevant. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s sweeping statements of condemnation do not make vital distinctions that civilized people must always make. I am referring to the distinctions between radical and fanatic versions of Islam and moderate and centrist versions of Islam. As we Jews know very well, there are real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements.

If any major American university were to award an honorary degree to a political or cultural figure who had spoken in such broadly condemnatory terms about Jews, the Jewish community would be outraged — and rightly so. The task of American Jews and all Americans is to join with our Muslim friends in the fight against religious fanaticism in Islam and in all other religious traditions; it is to promote the values of justice, love, and moderation that are common to all the major religious faiths. But we cannot do that if we insist on honoring those who, however sympathetic their backgrounds and moving their personal stories, have made the mistake of demonizing all Muslims and bashing Islam.

This is not a freedom-of-speech issue. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s right to speak at universities should not be constrained in any way, and Brandeis has correctly and wisely extended to her an invitation to appear on campus and present her views. But awarding an honorary degree is not the equivalent of recognizing an individual’s right to be heard; it constitutes an endorsement of that individual’s life work — and, in this instance, of Ms. Hirsi’s Ali’s views on Islam.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, William Kristol has raised the issue of whether honorary degrees granted by Brandeis in the past meet the standards to which it says it now adheres. Mr. Kristol makes a fair point. A case can be made, for example, that Brandeis erred in honoring Desmond Tutu, who was a champion of the anti-apartheid cause but who said some outrageous things about Jews and Israel. But again, that is beside the point now.

Ms. Hirsi Ali’s statements on Islam are not incidental to her activism and her life’s work. They stand at the very center of her concern. It goes without saying that Brandeis blundered by not doing its research before making the announcement and embarrassing everyone involved. Still, the only issue for the critics of Brandeis is whether they affirm Ms. Hirsi Ali’s prejudicial and deeply offensive views on Islam as a violent and fascistic religious tradition. If they do, let them say so. And if they don’t, they should acknowledge that Brandeis was right in the decision it made.

What is your opinion? Do you think Brandeis made the right decision?  Why or why not?

Give us your thoughts below or at


  1. I agree with Rabbi Yoffie completely on this. Brandeis is my alma mater too and I am glad that the university withdraw this honorary degree to someone who promotes hatred and distortions of another major monotheistic religion.

  2. This issue has to be seen in context and I think that Jonathan Tobin has given an accurate assessment of the context. If one reads Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infindel, one will also have a far greater understanding and appreciation of the context from which she is making her case. Her comments need to be understood in this light. I have heard her speak in Toronto and met her personally. I think her comments are referring to the radical elements of islam that, as Jonathan Tobin points out, are gaining ground in those parts of the world where women are being persecuted and denied the rights and freedoms we enjoy here in Canada and the US. I believe that she deserves an honourary degree and be given the opportunity to express her views in the hope that all of us will, in turn, speak up and join together to deal with this issue – one that fundamentally contravenes the principles that we live by as citizens of our respective countries and as Jews.
    I also agree with Rabbi Yoffie that “It goes without saying that Brandeis blundered by not doing its research before making the announcement and embarrassing everyone involved.” But even if it had done its research (i.e. read her books and articles), I still think they should have maintained their decision to grant her an honourary degree. It’s not too late for Brandeis to do, in my view, the right thing and revert back to their original decision.

  3. The following comment is by Jonathan Tobin, of Commentary Magazine

    Our Tom Wilson, and John Podhoretz have already ably dissected the craven decision of Brandeis University to bow to pressure from extremist Muslim groups and to rescind its offer of an honorary degree on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But now we are beginning to hear some defenses of the university’s decision that tell us more about what is wrong at Brandeis and the left than anything else. Up until now those who are rightly outraged by Brandeis’s cowardice have focused on the way the school’s administration was buffaloed into insulting Hirsi Ali by groups like CAIR and other apologists for radical and violent Islamists. But at this point it’s important to point out that perhaps the most important element of the story is not who is speaking up but who isn’t.

    We have heard a great deal in the last couple of years from liberals about a “war on women” that was supposedly being waged by American conservatives. That meme played a crucial part in President Obama’s reelection and Democrats hope to repeat that success in this year’s midterms. Liberals have tried to mobilize American women to go to the polls to register outrage over the debate about forcing employers to pay for free contraception, a Paycheck Fairness Act that is more of a gift to trial lawyers than women, and attempts to limit abortions after 20 weeks. These are issues on which reasonable people may disagree, but what most liberals seem to have missed is the fact that there is a real war on women that is being waged elsewhere around the globe where Islamist forces are brutalizing and oppressing women in ways that make these Democratic talking points look trivial. It is that point that Hirsi Ali is trying to make in her public appearances.

    But instead of rising in support of Hirsi Ali’s efforts to draw attention to these outrages, leading American feminists are silent. The only voices we’re hearing from the left are from men who are determined to justify Brandeis.

    At the Forward, Ali Gharib ignores the key issue of women’s rights and Hirsi Ali’s personal experiences. He merely repeats the smears of Hirsi Ali as a purveyor of hate speech against Muslims while doubling down on that meme by broadening the attack to the entire “hard line pro-Israel community” in which he includes not only COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard but also the reliably liberal Anti-Defamation League. He also attacks her for being a talking head in films which critique radical Islamists because they were produced by the Clarion Group, whose principle sin according to the radicals at CAIR (which was begun as a political front for Hamas fundraisers) was that many of those involved were Jews. Gharib is more circumspect and merely says they have ties to “the pro-Israel right.”

    A more thoughtful response in defense of Brandeis comes from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union of Reform Judaism, in the Huffington Post. Yoffie acknowledges that Ali Hirsi has a powerful story to tell about her experiences but says her “prejudicial and deeply offensive views on Islam as a violent and fascistic religious tradition” should disqualify her from being honored at Brandeis. The rabbi argues that if any person had made “broadly condemnatory terms about Jews, the Jewish community would be outraged — and rightly so.” While he acknowledges the point made by Lori Lowenthal Marcus that Brandeis has also honored anti-Zionists who shouldn’t have been given honorary degrees, he writes that this is “beside the point now.”

    But the problem here is that Rabbi Yoffie takes the smears thrown about by disreputable figures such as Gharib and CAIR as truthful rather than reading them in context. The principal charge against her is an interview she gave in Reason magazine in which she spoke of the need for the West to wage war on and defeat Islam. That sounds like she is attacking all Muslims rather than just the radicals. But her point is that in many contexts, principally in the Third World—something she knows a lot more about than even a distinguished Jewish scholar like Yoffie—the radicals have seized control of mainstream Islam. As she said, “right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.” That analysis of the situation in Iran and her native Somalia—not to mention a host of other Muslim countries—is inarguable.

    It is true, as Gharib argues, that Brandeis isn’t silencing Hirsi Ali. No one has a constitutional right to an honorary degree. The problem is that by wrongly tarring her as a hatemonger, what Brandeis’s defenders are doing is to marginalize the issue of the war on women being waged by Islamists.

    The issue at stake here goes beyond the vilification of one courageous woman. The refusal of the West to confront the truth about Islamism is the crux of this debate. It may be easy to pretend that Islamists are only a small minority of global Islam in the United States where even radicals like CAIR like to pretend to be liberals. But throughout the world it is increasingly clear that the radicals—“military Islam” as Hirsi Ali calls them—are on the march and have become the voice of mainstream Muslims rather than only a radical fringe.

    It is on this dilemma that the fate of hundreds of millions of women hangs. And yet American liberals and feminists feel no compulsion to speak up about this threat. As Hirsi Ali wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal:

    I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women’s and girls’ basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight.

    The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.

    Seen in that context, the shame of this controversy doesn’t belong only to Brandeis and its leadership but to a broad cross-section of Americans who should be on Hirsi Ali’s side in this fight rather than listening to her opponents.

    • Jonathan Tobin is right on target. Where are the non-militant Moslems when non-Moslems are terrorized. Their voices are too few. They are considered radicals in the Muslim world and persecuted as such. Brandeis and the ueber-liberals have strayed from the side of Justice, have betrayed the women subject to Islamic rule, and betrayed their own integrity.

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