This is a guest post by Sarah AB
The headline chosen for Toby Young’s recent Telegraph piece pulls no punches:
The case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali: cowardly Brandeis University capitulates to Islamist pressure
However, I am not sure you have to be an Islamist, or even a Muslim, to find some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s statements about Islam quite startling.
Here’s one of her responses to David Cohen, taken from a 2007 interview published in the Evening Standard:
Violence is inherent in Islam – it's a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder. The police may foil plots and freeze bank accounts in the short term, but the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it's not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself.'
And here's an extract from another interview given in the same year.
: Do you think Islam could bring about similar [i.e. positive] social and political changes?
: Only if Islam is defeated. Because 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.
: Don’t you mean defeating Islam?
: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.
: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?
: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. … There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.
: In all forms, and if you do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being .
Since 2007 Hirsi Ali has expressed herself in more measured terms, and is quite justified in feeling let down by Brandeis University, who should have researched her views more carefully (or stood by their original decision if, as some have suggested, they were in fact aware of her controversial statements.)
And some Muslims (and indeed non-Muslims) do seem intent on introducing blasphemy taboos by the back door, and some – as Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself knows only too well – are driven to violence by those who criticise or mock their religion.
But to question whether Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an appropriate recipient of an honorary degree is not an attack on freedom of speech. One might be perfectly happy for her to speak at the university, to share her views in a debate – yet have misgivings about seeing those views formally and flatteringly endorsed.
Toby Young seems to confuse the issues of free speech and endorsement here:
Whether you agree with Hirsi Ali's Manichean view of Islam, she's entitled to express it without being bombarded with death threats or accused of "Islamophobia" which, in this context, amounts to "hate speech" since it's precisely that charge that has led to threats on her life. You would think that an American university would be a staunch defender of Hirsi Ali's right to free speech and wouldn't capitulate to a mob of politically correct Muslims at the first sign of trouble. If the same institution had offered an honorary degree to Richard Dawkins, it's simply inconceivable that it would change its mind after being attacked by Christians.
Of course she is entitled to express her views without receiving death threats, but Toby Young seems to be trying to chill our speech a little by insinuating that criticism of Hirsi Ali amounts to ‘hate speech’ because it might incite others to violence. Brandeis has said she is still welcome to speak at the university – so it is misleading of Young to imply that it is depriving her of free speech in any way, shape or form.
It is often noted that Islam is not a race, and that people must be free to criticise any ideology. But Islam isn’t the only idea about which people are passionately protective. One can imagine that honouring someone with strong pro-life views or a well known supporter of BDS might also spark controversy.
There need not be any absolute disjuncture between signing up to all the recent secularist causes (most, such as opposition to gender segregation on university campuses, involving Islam) and sympathising with those Muslims who didn’t welcome the decision to honour Hirsi Ali. The problems she identifies and campaigns against are all too real, and do indeed need to be combated resolutely. But her own recent shift in rhetoric – towards talk of reforming rather than crushing Islam – is itself perhaps an acknowledgement that her earlier approach excluded Muslims who agreed with her on pretty much all substantive points. Maajid Nawaz is one example – watch his response to her on just this issue here (from about 52:00).
I have seen a comparison made between the Brandeis case and the campaign against Maajid Nawaz (for retweeting Jesus and Mo). But there is quite a gulf between asserting one doesn’t find a cartoon offensive and declaring that an entire religion is an evil ideology which must be defeated. I am rather uncomfortably aware that many people I respect are more unambiguously critical of Brandeis’ decision than me – and quite a few of these actively admire Hirsi Ali, without (much) reservation. I’m also aware that many loathsome people loathe her. But it shouldn’t be assumed that all of the ‘mob’ (to use Toby Young’s word) who opposed her being honoured will be either extreme or illiberal in their views.