Brandeis University’s Moral Cowardice (revised)



One of the most important feminists fighting for women’s rights in the Islamic world is a woman named Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This remarkable woman was born in Somalia where she was raised as a Muslim. She spent her youth and young adulthood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, her life took a radically new direction. She escaped from a forced marriage to a distant cousin and traveled to the Netherlands.

While she was there, she learned Dutch and worked as an interpreter in the abortion clinics and shelters for battered women. She went on to earn a college degree in political science.  The September 11 terrorist attacks convinced her she could no longer identify as a Muslim. Now she fights for Muslim women everywhere; she has been an ardent critic of Islamic extremism.

This past week, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to confer an honorary doctorate degree because of her strident views of Islam as a religion. Ironically, as one think-tank named Fear Inc., observes, “One of Al Qaeda’s greatest recruitment and propaganda tools is the assertion that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims — an argument that is strengthened every day by those who suggest all Muslims are terrorists and all those practicing Islam are jeopardizing U.S. security.”

In one interview with she told Reason Magazine,  “There is no moderate Islam. … There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.”

The Brandeis University leadership criticized her for not differentiating between Radical Islam and Moderate Islam. Given her experiences in the Muslim world, which forcibly removed her clitoris when she was a child, it is not hard to see why she feels the way she does.

The decision to withdraw the honorary degree completely surprised her. She wrote:

•        ” Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

•         “When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings,’ and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So, I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

•        ”What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.[1]

While I can understand Brandeis University’s withdrawal of the honor, it seems to me that it was still wrong to do so for many reasons. For one thing, the time to do the research on her background was before Brandeis offered it to her in the first place. For a stellar educational institution like Brandeis University, the time for doing due diligence is before it decided to honor her—not after. Since this was not properly done, the ethical thing is to confer the honor and learn from this “mistake” for the future.

Secondly, this woman is a heroine despite her atheistic attitudes about religion. Her community work has brought to light some very ghastly problems that we in the West must confront the Muslim community with so that they will issue fatwas and take a stronger moral stand against these hideous practices. Shaming her before the entire world was cruel as it was unnecessary.

Secular Muslims, or, people who have renounced Islam as a religion, have every right to express an opinion that runs contrary to the guardians of CAIR. In the intellectual history of the West, we have seen many great figures of history, e.g., Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud criticize religion for its many moral failures. If these men were alive today, would Brandeis University refuse to listen to their criticism of Islam (or any faith for that matter)? Who can forget Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses; his brilliant literary work earned him a death fatwa from Muslim fanatics.

If I were Rushdie, I sure would like to know: “Where are the Muslim moderates?”

If I were a Muslim woman being stoned to death in Iran after being raped, I would sure want to know, “Where are the Muslim moderates?”

Is Hirsi Ali correct about Moderate Islam being non-existent?  I, for one, hope she is wrong. I have known a number of outstanding moderate Muslim leaders with whom I have done many interfaith programs with over the years. Unfortunately, they have only a marginal presence in the news. This is not necessarily their fault; the media in our country prefers to portray the extremists more than the moderates.

The international Muslim community can only benefit from the critics who will not accept the blatant sexism that is harming women in their society. If women’s liberation is good for the West and its religions, it is especially important for the Muslim countries where women are terrorized on a daily basis.

Rushdie and other outspoken secular Arabs or former Muslims have every right to speak their truth. The leadership at Brandeis refuses to treat atheistic thinkers with a modicum of respect. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Ibn Warraq are among a few of the luminaries who mince no words about what is wrong with religion—especially as it pertains to today’s decadent form of Radical Islam.  While I do not agree with the atheistic belief system, I do believe atheists today offer a wonderful critique of what is wrong with organized religion today.

Is Hirsi Ali an extremist? Hardly, this woman has received international awards from numerous liberal and conservative organizations. Here is a partial list, as compiled from Wikipedia:

•         •         Denmark: awarded the Freedom Prize of Denmark’s Liberal Party (20 November 2004), “for her work to further freedom of speech and the rights of women.”

•         •         From the European Union: Voted European of the Year for 2006 by the European editors of Reader’s Digest magazine. At a ceremony in The Hague on 23 January, Hirsi Ali accepted this award from EU Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes.[118]

•         •          Belgium: awarded the Prize of Liberty by Nova Civitas, a classical liberal think tank in the Low Countries (January 2004).

•         •          Germany: She received the civilian prize Glas der Vernunft Kassel, Germany. The organization rewarded her with this prize for her courage in criticizing Islam (1 October 2006).

•         •          Netherlands: given the Harriet Freezerring Emancipation Prize by Cisca Dresselhuys, editor of the feminist magazine Opzij (25 February 2005).

•         •          Norway: awarded the annual European Bellwether Prize by the Norwegian think tank Human Rights Service. According to HRS, Hirsi Ali is “beyond a doubt, the leading European politician in the field of integration. (She is) a master at the art of mediating the most difficult issues with insurmountable courage, wisdom, reflectiveness, and clarity” (June 2005).

•         •         Sweden: awarded the annual Democracy Prize of the Swedish Liberal People’s Party “for her courageous work for democracy, human rights and women’s rights.” She received the prize at a ceremony at the Swedish Riksdag from the party leader Lars Leijonborg (29 August 2005)

•         •         United States: listed by Time Magazine amongst the 100 Most Influential Persons of the World. She was put in the category “Leaders & Revolutionaries” (18 April 2005).

•         •         United States: accepted the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee (4 May 2006).

•         United States: given the Goldwater Award for 2007 from the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, at a dinner attended by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Rep. John Shadegg (R-Arizona), and Steve Forbes (7 December 2007).

•         United States: Won the Richard Dawkins Prize (2008), by the Atheist Alliance International.

Contrary to what CAIR would like you to believe, Hirsi Ali is a champion respected by much of the Western world. Her goal of “defeating Islam” refers to those fanatics who have harmed and threatened innocent lives. She envisions a peaceful Islam but demands a full-scale reformation of the religion. Hirsi Ali has never advocated genocide or violence against Muslims. Her words pertain to the extremists and their enablers, such as CAIR, an organization that has long supported Hamas. Like many of today’s “New Atheists,” she believes religion is part of the problem and we need to break people of its spell. That means, among other things, getting people away from the literal words in the Koran.

Brandeis University owes this great woman an apology.

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