On Brandeis University and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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. 

Reason: Do you think Islam could bring about similar [i.e. positive] social and political changes?
Hirsi Ali: 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.
Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?
Hirsi Ali: 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.
Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?
Hirsi Ali: 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.
Reason: Militarily?
Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

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.


Kolya said…
You rightly refer to Hirsi Ali's "recent shift in rhetoric" as "itself perhaps an acknowledgement that her earlier approach excluded Muslims who agreed with her on pretty much all substantive points."

But when deliberating about the attitudes of her critics you appear not to place as much weight on her post-2007 stance as on her earlier admittedly intemperate pronouncements.

Is not a person's reconsidered position a more appropriate basis for deciding how to treat them, than their superseded one?
Anonymous said…
I haven't done a survey, but many BDSers have got honorary degrees. e.g. Butler recently in McGill, I believe...

On that controversy (May 2013), see
"Ilana Donohue, co-president of McGill Students for Israel, said: "She’s an accomplished scholar, but her views on Israel would be quite disturbing to many students. She doesn’t believe in a Jewish state and we want other schools to think twice before giving her awards because it offends students." Christopher Manfredi, dean of arts at McGill, said Butler is being honored for her scholarship, and that the university supports freedom of expression even if "comments are controversial or considered objectionable by some."

Seems to me a healthier attitude.

Awards of honorary doctorates are not, in my view, university endorsements of all the views and statements of the person concerned. They are endorsements of the worth of a person's overall work/career/contribution.

- Sarka
Suada said…
I agree with this post. I don't agree with most of what Hirsi Ali says, and I think she goes slightly too far at times (as the quotes above show), but I don't believe that she endorses violence against Muslims.

I also don't believe that academic qualifications should be revoked because of that person's controversial views. The Armenian Genocide is unique in the sense that many scholars who are otherwise quite serious and competent are found amongst the deniers, but I don't believe they should have their qualifications revoked because of this.

But yes, Toby Young's argument is typically disingenuous, like when he claimed that the Guardian's repudiation of Julie Burchil's article was a violation of her 'freedom of speech' and 'right to offend'. I notice that Young is rather more ambivalent when it comes to David Ward's 'freedom of speech' and 'right to offend';

organic cheeseboard said…
It'd be good to see some evidence that she's changed her mind post-2007. I don't really see any change in, for example, the rationales behind her support for a ban on minarets in Switzerland (one of the poooerst pieces of argument I've ever seen came from her on that, incidentally) and her opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque (which was based on the 'clash of civilisations'). She still believes this stuff - she's not repented in any sense, she just tends to tone down the rhetoric a bit (probably because the Republican Party are now anti-war in general).

Toby Young's piece is a real crock. I won't bother with the various points about AHA which he raises then ignores (for instance, the quotation he uses to 'exonerate her from hate speech' does nothing of the sort). But it is worth pointing out this:

the outspoken critic of female genital mutilation and a campaigner on behalf of Muslim women.

She does oppose FGM but she also considers it intrinsic to radical Islam, when it manifestly is not (this is not to say i'm sympathetic to radical Islam or FGM at all, but the act is that AHA is deliberately misleading on the issue). She's a campaigner on Muslim women's behalf in the sense of her expecting them all to renounce their faith violently - and that unless they do this, they're part of the problem. This really doesn't sum up her beliefs or campaigns at all - it's wilfuly misleading at best.

Young also says:

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.

I think it actually is pretty conceivable that this could happen. Dawkins has precisely zero honorary doctorates from US Universities, but has a fair few from UK and European institutions.

Personally I cannot understand why Brandeis thought her a suitable honorary doctor. Aside from the bravery she's demonstrated, her thinking on politics and religion is really not very sophisticated or interesting, aside from how interesting it is that people like Nick Cohen seem happy to overlook her rampant anti-Islam bigotry for some reason.
organic cheeseboard said…
Also - yes, I think someone can be rewarded for their scholarship even if their political inclinations are a bit suspect, like Butler's might be. But Hirsi Ali isn't a scholar - the only things she's written are anti-Islam polemics in the guide of autobiographies. For a University to award her an honorary doctorate implies endorsement of her thinking.
SarahABUK said…
Kolya - I'm receptive to taking account of improvement, WRT Hirsi Ali or anyone else (say, Mehdi Hasan), although I note that organic cheeseboard doesn't feel she has softened much.

Sarka - as we were discussing on Kenan Malik's blog, I think the relationship between the work the 'offence' is significant. It's quite weak in the case of Butler, but as OC notes below, rather strong in the case of AHA - so a closer parallel might be someone like Ben White. If he was offered an award I certainly wouldn't condemn anyone who kicked up a fuss.

Suada - I agree that political views shouldn't be a reason to revoke academic awards, but honorary degrees are a bit different, more of a personal honour. I am sure she doesn't endorse violence towards Muslims, but her rhetoric, at worst, is hugely confrontational, and I am not sure how her wish to eradicate Islam could be achieved without either violence or the kind of illiberalism more usually associated with, er, some Muslim countries.

OC - yes, it's misleading to imply that it's standing up for Muslim women or against FGM that is the problem, or the whole story, with AHA.
Suada said…
Sarah - Having researched the matter more thoroughly, I agree that some of Hirsi Ali's statements have been pretty reprehensible and inflammatory (I'd also add her statements equating minarets with swastikas), and that much of the support for her has not been out of a concern for academic freedom or free speech, but instead of of sympathy for her political views. Would Toby Young or Robert Spencer really be complaining if Medhi Hasan had an honorary award revoked for his statements about 'Kuffar', or if David Ward had one revoked due to his statements on Jews?

On the other hand, the stated reason for the award was her support for women's rights and opposition to female genital mutiliation, so the university could argue that it does not endorse her wider views about Islam and Muslims. I think the initial decision to grant her one was a little bizarre to be honest, but withdrawing it under pressure gives a bad signal.

FormerCorr said…
In principle, it should be possible to criticise all of Islam, in the same way as one can criticise Christianity, Judaism or Religion in general as a set of beliefs and practices. The distinction here is between a belief and a person holding that belief.

For sure, AHA goes further than most people here, who prefer to base their critique on "Islamism" as something more specifically political. But "anti-Islamist" is sometimes seen as suspect, c.f. recent warnings from Soupyone.

So we end up with layers of sensibilities. How to decide? Are there key principles that we can follow in these cases? Or if it is a mix of principles and practice, how does that work? I haven't sort this out fully myself.
FormerCorr said…
Over at Elder of Zyon, he links to this in the Washington Post

And goes on to argue:

"Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an important campaigner for women's rights, especially in societies where women are not well protected. She has put her life on the line, quite literally, for her beliefs. [...]
Ali's criticisms of Islam are not simple-minded nor borne out of hate. She is not a bigot. The worst that can be said is that she overly generalizes, but given her life experiences, that is a small infraction. Most of her criticisms of Islam are really about political Islam, where the Islamic nations (and groups of thugs in places like Europe) can threaten, coerce and even murder those who don't toe the line. Muslims have skillfully managed to manipulate the West into being afraid of criticizing the immoral and unconscionable political aspects of Islam by conflating it with the (Western concept) religious aspects of Islam. Indeed, there is no daylight from within the Islamic framework between the two - Islam is as much political philosophy as it is a religion. As such, it can and must be criticized."
FormerCorr said…
Although I would add more caveats than EOZ, I do agree that Islam as such is a valid topic for critique, and that AHA is not a bigot.

I always think that context and tone are vital factors in any critique.

In the case of AHA, she was repeatedly told "We are doing these (bad) things to you in the name of Islam, and if you think they are bad, then you are against Islam". One can understand that in such circumstances she might respond at least at first by saying, "Okay, then I don't like Islam". Later, she made more distinctions. I may be wrong but that is how I understood the story to go.
SarahABUK said…
Former Corr - I take your point that it is difficult to know where fair criticism of Islam (or Muslim groups or whatever) ends, and bigotry begins - ditto criticism of Israel - and I feel we must resign ourselves to there being a grey area where reasonable people might disagree.

I agree with you that her experiences inevitably make one view AHA very differently from, say, Robert Spencer.

But it's interesting that the article you quote from first says she only criticises political Islam really, and then asserts there is no meaningful distinction between political Islam and Islam generally. It's a pretty bigoted piece itself.

I don't feel I have been manipulated by Muslims not to feel I can criticise Muslim groups and aspects of Islam. Of course some call every criticism 'Islamophobic' but I have no problem a) taking no notice of such people and b) finding Muslims with whom I have a reasonable level of agreement about the things which concern me about some other Muslims.

I am also able to reach a reasonable level of agreement with tougher secularists than me (some of them Muslim in fact) and with people like the CEMB Forum who are more critical of Islam than me. But Ayaan Hirsi Ali goes further than I feel comfortable with.

Although, as I said, I agree with you about the distinction between fair and unfair criticism of things relating Islam - it's always been the case that Harry's Place has opposed anti-Muslim bigotry and counter-jihadist types like Spencer and Geller, also the EDL. And I think my reservations about AHA are compatible with that position.
FormerCorr said…
Yes that sounds like a helpful set of distinctions.

The WSJ has published something by AHA, described as the commencement speech she would have given if not disinvited. In the speech she praises Brandeis for giving her a platform and says that universities must allow debate. She goes on to call for Islam to go through a reformist stage like other religions.

I am interested in peoples' take on that. I have certainly heard many practising Muslims say the same thing, and over a long period of time.
SarahABUK said…
Some Muslims speak in terms of reform whereas others, apparently with fairly similar views and values, prefers to frame this as a return to true Islam, regarding problems such as FGM, in particular, as unislamic. I find the speech somewhat annoying, although greatly preferable to her earlier rhetoric.

Here's the link.


She mixes so many different things together - Egypt (where it's the anti-Islamists misbehaving right now) and Syria (Assad is monstrous but hardly an Islamist, by any stretch)

She says:

"The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored."

While I disagree with those who try to brush aside any connection between Islam and the many acts of terrorism committed in its name, I don't think her words are particularly well judged as most American Muslims would condemn most of what she condemns - FGM etc.

I find her whole approach and selection of topics quite odd. FGM is terrible but, as i've indicated, it's easy to find Muslim allies on that issue. MENA is complicated, to put it mildly, and many brave secularists in the region are themselves Muslims.

She is right to condemn the lowering of marriage and also right to say this has a link with Islam. But not *all* Muslims see such moves as Islamic. We had a post from a Muslim woman on Harry's Place condemning the new laws in Pakistan, and later I linked to a piece by a Muslim Palestinian activist criticising similar moves elsewhere.

I think this is the best piece I have read about the whole Brandeis issue.

Kolya said…
Sarah – Despite her pronouncements being a bit all over the place, at least Hirsi Ali's call for an Islamic reformation differentiates her from out-and-out Islamic essentialists, who explicitly or implicitly suggest that Islam is irredeemably wicked.
organic cheeseboard said…
Her speech is a really poor piece of writing - something of a trend with her. She elides so many different issues of questionable asociation, and ends with questions that aren't really linked to what she'd previously been talking about:

Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration?

I really don't understand what that has to do with, say, the Syrian government's actions in recent years - the only thing that links them is 'Islam', but the Syrian govt is secular.

Hirsi Ali does not share 'our' ideal of 'religious toleration' anyway (in favour of banning minarets, of not allowing the 'Ground Zero Mosque to be built', equating minarets with swastikas) - so this 'we' does not include the speaker. It's simply misleading.

And then:

Is it blasphemy—punishable by death—to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era?

No it isn't. But who is arguing that it is, aside from hardline imams? and again the issue is only tangentially linked to what she'd previously discussed.

And - again - her idea of a 'Muslim Reformation' is ok in theory, but in practice she hates literally everything about the religion and it ignores a central problem with the concept - the fact that the koran is meant to be the literal word of God, so there's much less room for manouvre than in, say, Christianity. She's also never made it clear what this 'reformation' would look like, because what she really wants to see is Islam being forcibly removed from the planet.
flyingrodent said…
I can't help but notice that British blogs aren't exactly abuzz with defences of Aayan, as they once were - and trust me, they were.

Time was, if you raised an objection to anything AHA said at certain places, you could expect to be instantly shouted down as a genital-mutilating, woman-crushing monster.

Examples: Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton-Ash wrote mildly-approving-with-caveats reviews of her books, and took a terrific monstering for it from certain people with internet connections, and have emerged looking, if anything, like they hugely understated their very tame criticisms.

And now, Sarah addresses this issue at Bob's place rather than Harry's Place. I'm assuming this is because you know what kind of response this post would get there, right?
SarahABUK said…
Thanks Kolya - yes, I don't disagree with you but I also agree with Organic Cheeseboard's analysis - and if s/he finds that speech's rhetoric uncongenial - check out this unbelievable headline


Flying rodent - I remember feeling in a minority a few years ago when the Buruma/Berman debate was being discussed and I agree that opposition to her views was being elided with a wish to silence or even kill her. (By the way, the main reason I didn't post at HP was because a conversation in the comments led to someone else being invited to write on the topic.)
Kolya said…
I agree that the Fox News headline is awful, and the Volokh piece is excellent.

I recognise that this might be wishful thinking on my part, but I think that while AHA clearly suffers from the zeal of the disvert, her main error is excessive pessimism about the feasibility of Muslims becoming reconciled with secularism.

Unfortunately, taken beyond a certain point, that error has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, the excessive hostility her views provoke among the anti-Islamophobia fraternity, no doubt serve to reinforce her undue pessimism about the possibility of reform in Muslim cultures.

I feel a sense of frustration about the lost opportunities resulting from the lack of finesse with which both sides to this argument are accustomed to handling themselves.
"Hirsi Ali: 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."

I think this is key to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's position towards Islam. She sees a dominant element in Islam is triumphalism, rooted in its history of irresistible and unresisted expansionism across the world. That element of triumphalism consolidated into a sense of entitlement and later frustration that gave birth to what we call today Islamism, or political Islam. It is this element that has to be dislodged before Islam can mutate into a peaceful religion whose central concern is only the provision of comfort and spiritual sustenance to its believers. How that change is brought about is the question, of course. But however it is achieved, there must be an a priory recognition that the world has a problem, and the world must try to define that problem as accurately as possible. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not talking about violence to Muslims but she does contend that Islam in its current form is incompatible with peace (that is, freedom) and as an ideology it has to be defeated and to be shown to be defeated. I understand her to be quite unambiguous about it: Islam is a religion pregnant with fascist-like ideology. Remove the ideology and you have the makings of a peaceful religion.

What is so hateful about this position that she incurs so much hatred and rejection?

Let me remind you:

"Hirsi Ali may be the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust. As such, she is a unique and indispensable witness to both the strength and weakness of the West: to the splendor of open society and to the boundless energy of its antagonists. She knows the challenges we face in our struggle to contain the misogyny and religious fanaticism of the Muslim world, and she lives with the consequences of our failure each day. There is no one in a better position to remind us that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice." (By Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie October 9, 2007)


Compare and contrast with what what Garton Ash wrote about her at about the same time:

"Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist."

I had to re-read this statement a few times in order to believe that I was reading it correctly. One can almost hear the haughty drawl, in the elegant attempt to shrivel her into her right place, as though marveling at her audacity in resorting to Voltaire's words to explain her position.

I don't know where to place Brandeis' unfathomable gesture between Gashton Ash's sneering condescension and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's more aggressive excluders today. It is all a mystery to me.
bob said…
I just messed up the comment moderation. Flying Rodent left this comment at 00:38:

To be honest, I probably wouldn't have an opinion on Ayaan Hirsi Ali if it weren't for people ordering us to back her. As noted by CC above, Timothy Garton-Ash got it right in the neck for making the very mildest of criticisms, far milder than were merited in my opinion.

Well, here's Ayaan telling the Israeli public that negotiating with the Palestinians is pointless, because the Palestinians are inherently crazy beyond all reasoning - not because they're aggrieved or prejudiced, but because they're Muslims.


I think this is at least as extreme a view as that of e.g. Avigdor Lieberman, Tommy Robinson or Geert Wilders.

My feminist credentials are very weak indeed, but I also think that if you buy AHA's view on immigration from Muslim countries, they amount to pulling the ladder up behind her and stopping any other women following the path she took.

Further, although I'd never feel compelled to say this about anyone unless I was being instructed to support them, I do have to point out that taking up with another woman's husband isn't very sisterly, especially when he's the father of three of their children. Again, ordinarily I'd say that's none of my business, but circumstances have brought it on-topic.

And then, there's some pretty severe suspicion that AHA has basically invented vast tracts of her biography - quite well supported by Dutch reporting, it is - and the fact that she explicitly backed e.g. the highly illiberal Swiss minaret ban, and is now gainfully employed on the outer rim of crazy, belligerent American thinktankery.

Like I say, I wouldn't usually go out of my way to have an opinion on people like Ayaan - I'd usually read a few lines in an interview and think, inspirational story, fighting against oppression, entirely admirable. But being commanded to back her by hacks is the kind of thing that makes you want to do a bit of reading, and the reading suggests she might just be a crank and a fraud, and that everyone swooning over her might be a bullshitter.

Flying Rodent is the first I read to throw a verbal stone at Ayaan Hirsi Ali for being a homewrecker. How amusing that her "promiscuity" is used as an argument against her politics and robust free-thinking. And how credulous he is towards the Dutch appalling mistreatment of this woman. Well, they are white and European, of course, and their decency is not to be impeached! Scratch a rodent and you get a slightly comical, pompously smug, always bigoted, Dickensian misogynist, crinkling his nose in disgust at the sight of the uppity black whore.

I notice how difficult it is for Human Rights aficionados to tolerate a brown person when he or she steps out of their allotted role.

" Rex the Male Sheepdog: You and I are descended from the great sheepdogs. We carry the bloodline of the ancient Bahou. We stand for something! And today I watched in shame as all that was betrayed.

Fly: Rex, he's just a little pig.

Rex the Male Sheepdog: All the greater the insult! "

Anonymous said…
Whether you like it or not saying Islam is an evil ideology that must be defeated is out of order - my housemate is a practicing Muslim, not very religious but he goes to mosque sometimes, doesn't eat pork or alcohol and comes from a traditional Muslim family. There are lots of ways to be a Muslim the same as there are lots of ways to be a Jew or a Christian I know Muslims who will quite happily drink alcohol. In addition the whole clash of civilization rhetoric ends up by default being uncritically of Western imperialism.

Imagine that someone said that Judaism was an evil ideology that had to be destroyed and then got round it by saying they were Jewish themselves, I actually have a bit of time for stuff this woman had said in the past but I don't have too much of a problem with this decision because I don't think that this type of nonsense is helpful especially considering what discrimination against Muslims there is and some of the stories I have heard from mates.
Anonymous said…
I agree with you Bob this is pulling the ladder up behind you stuff a bit like David Starkey!
Anonymous said…
And I don't think that this type of thing is necessary excusable just because it comes fromsomeone with a Muslim background none of my Muslim mates are un a war to take over the west and the idea is ridiculous. Look at Gilad Atzmon and our view of him, if a normal Muslim would read her writing about how Islam is dangerous, no Muslim immigrants should be allowed in the country, (even though she is one herself) a clash of civilizations with an evil and unredeemable ideology, I bet any of them would have the same reaction to how we feel. People should have more empathy and actually imagine what it would be like to read this sort of thing if you were the target for the rant.

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