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Brandeis' mistake on critic of Islam

By Timothy Stanley
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
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  • He says move runs counter to academic freedom, Brandeis shouldn't have withdrawn it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.

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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.

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