Is This Woman Really so Dangerous That She Must Be Kept from Speaking

The recent dust up over Brandeis University’s decision to revoke an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak and receive an honorary degree is truly interesting. It clearly exposes the issues of free speech and the rights of intellectual contestation as well as shines light on that place on the political spectrum where the left meets the right. A picture of Hirsi Ali is below. First some very quick background:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been objecting to the treatment of women by Muslims for over a decade. She was born in Somalia and experienced female circumcision which prompted her to organize in protest against the practice which led to her forceful criticism of Islam. She immigrated to the Netherlands in 1992 and has developed a powerful reputation as an advocate for women’s rights and an opponent of religious extremism of all types but Islam in particular. Hirsi Ali is the recipient of numerous international awards.

Hirsi Ali is in general an honorable and articulate human rights and democracy advocate. Over the years I have enjoyed listening to her and found myself in agreement. But apparently, she goes too far; she’s too strident in her objections to Islam and once referred to Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death”

She was invited to speak and receive an honorary degree from Brandeis but the invitation was revoked as result of a protest against her criticisms of Islam which were considered extreme and politically incorrect. Muslim students at Brandeis objected to her appearance and she was quickly uninvited by the President of Brandeis. One noteworthy Brandeis graduate, Jeffrey Herf, wrote a damning letter criticizing the President for rescinding the invitation and defending Hirsi Ali. That letter can be found here. In the letter Herf chastises Brandeis for running to the defense of one of the most anti-semitic organizations in recent history and pointed out the inconsistencies between the freedom to criticize Israel versus the freedom to criticize Islam.

Liberals have supported the president claiming that Hirsi Ali’s statements are not compatible with certain values of free speech, namely, tolerance and respect. And conservatives of course are very critical of the president for not supporting free speech and kowtowing to a few minority voices.

This is the place on the political spectrum where the left starts to act like the right. The right typically wants to limit political speech that is critical of the government, and the left wants to limit speech that is insensitive to or critical of ethnopolitical or religious groups. The left in this case stands for nothing. I agree that Hirsi Ali is intemperate but she is also representative of a position, and the nanny state should not be in the business of deciding what people hear – within limits of course. Hirsi Ali should be allowed to speak and if she is too extreme she should be taken to task for it and the issue should be discussed rather than automatically taken off of the discursive table. Brandeis students and faculty are mature enough to listen to Hirsi Ali and not be oppressed by her.

The decision by Brandeis to uninvite Hirsi Ali amounts to using political opinions to determine who speaks on campus, something I think the University community is not interested in. Other critics, such as Yossi Klein Halevi and Abdullah Antepli have suggested that honoring Hirsi Ali would be a slap in the face to Muslim students and a negation of Brandeis values of inclusivism, tolerance, and interdependence. Halevi also made the distinction between a dissident in a renegade where a dissident tries to change things but a renegade just damns them. Hirsi Ali is a renegade according to Halevi, but she remains a renegade with respect to symbolic behavior, that is, language and argument. She is not organizing violent revolution.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 20, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Peace and Conflict Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. thanks for writing this.
    I have assigned her book in an introductory Islam course, and then did not in large part because of reasoning similar to something Klein HaLevi said, although not the comment that is so widely quoted. Her approach to Islam is her own and not broadly representative of mainstream approaches to Islam by people born into Islam. Of course, that is why her opinions matter!

    What’s more, although there are a lot of Muslim-Jewish interactions, the collaboration of Klein Halevi and Antepli can be seen by some as not so very indicative of the broad mainstream either, and certainly reflect the realities in some segments of Israel and the USA, but rejected in many other areas.

    My own reactions to the dis-invitation issue were shaped in part by dis-invitations and a presidential caving to various interests on my university campus. Klein Halevi was right about the disinvitation being a learning experience: I am not sure this is anything at all what he met, but the learning experience should be that Brandeis has the resources to properly vet any speaker they plan for commencement. Once having made a decision to invite her, the Brandeis administration should have been able to stand by this choice. The learning experience: don’t invite someone you will have to dis-invite, and stick by your choice or look foolish.

    I am also wary of CAIR, Council for American Islamic Relations, which protested vociferously–but after all, that is what they do–protest any speaker seen as negative to Islam. With all due respect, this is something like some Jewish responses to anyone perceived as being even slightly anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

    HIrsi Ali is an important voice, and many of her controversial opinions about Islam are voiced by Muslims as well–many Muslims emphasize readiness for death over life, or the subservience of women or of women’s honor, and other things to which she objects–and do so saying that these are Islamic teachings.

    The saddest thing about this is that there are strong Muslim voices who criticize some of the same things Hirsi Ali has criticized, and argue strongly for Human Rights in terms recognizable to the international community–but they are often also marginalized as well–and it is unfortunately easily possible to argue that Hirsi Ali has been more effective in her work.

    I think the dis-invitation has created a great deal of interesting discussion, but has robbed Brandeis graduates of an historic opportunity to interact with a unique and important writer, thinker and activist.

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