Email Exchange on the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Honorary Degree Fiasco at Brandeis University with Stephen Whitfield, the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis
Dear Professor Whitfield:
I appreciative your taking the trouble to respond to my email to President Lawrence. I have read your response carefully. But I find your arguments unpersuasive.
You sharply distinguish Islamism and Islam: the first should be criticized, even condemned, the latter should not. And you imply strongly that the former is a perversion of the latter. I disagree. To me “Islamism” is just as valid a version of Islam as any other, and in fact may be more valid in that it takes the commands of Sharia law literally, which is to say in a way that is consistent with the ordinary meaning of words. Moreover, Sharia law is based on the Koran, which is considered the word of God, and thus something with which no Muslim can disagree and to which no Muslim can object.
And what does adherence to Sharia law require? Among many barbarous requirements, that of punishing apostates like Ms. Ali with death. True, millions of Muslims don’t take the requirement literally. But millions of Muslims do. And I’m unaware of any Muslim state or organization in the United States, such as CAIR, denouncing practices such as this, as a result of which people are murdered, or, as in Ms. Ali’s case, threatened with death. Perhaps Ms. Ali should have phrased her condemnation of the barbarism she considers typical of Islam today in slightly less sweeping, less categorical language, and acknowledged that lots of Muslims either believe apostates should be stoned to death but choose not to act on their belief, or for whatever reason reject that particular injunction. But I doubt that her doing so would have mollified CAIR and the colleagues of yours on the Brandeis faculty who consider any criticism of Islam somehow beyond the pale of reasoned discourse. Instead they consider it evidence of “Islamaphobia,” the pervasiveness of which, since 9/11, groups like CAIR grossly exaggerate.
Why should a religion — as opposed to any other system of thought and action — be immune to criticism or condemnation? What you call “respect for religious differences” seems a euphemism for granting Islam immunity.
“Islam” is not some pristine, disembodied entity, like a Platonic Form that exists independently of those who practice it. The Christianity that was endemic in Europe during the Wars of Religion on both sides of the battle lines, Protestant and as well as Catholic, was different from what it is today. And what made it different was not the theology itself but rather how literally the theology was interpreted. And the same could be said about Judaism. Some of the injunctions in the Jewish Bible/Old Testament, if taken literally and in the abstract, could be conducive to violence, and I suspect that Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 who murdered 29 innocent Muslims on the West Bank, did precisely that. But is there any evidence that Jews beyond a lunatic fringe act on the basis of such injunctions or that such actions are condoned by the vast majority of Jews? There is not. In fact, Goldstein’s murderous rampage was condemned by every faction on the Israeli political spectrum, and by every major American Jewish organization.
That is hardly the case for Islamic states and organizations. CAIR not only refuses to condemn specifics acts of Muslim violence; like the 56 member Organization of the Islamic Conference, it seeks to criminalize any criticism of Islam as a form of blasphemy. Perhaps in 400 years Islam will be as pacific as Christianity is today; there is no large body of Christians anywhere in the world today seeking to impose it forcibly on others. It may be inconvenient to say so, but millions of Muslims today are seeking the destruction of Western Civilization; should they succeed, not only freedom of religion but other freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights will disappear. Islam, as expressed in Sharia law, is not just a religion but a way of life, one that I doubt you and the other faculty at Brandeis who have attacked Ms. Ali would find consistent with the freedoms you currently enjoy by virtue of living in the West. To the extent that Ms. Ali calls attention to this threat to our civilization, she deserves praise, not opprobrium.
But even if one accepts your view that the Islamists Ms. Ali condemns are not representative of Islam, I cannot understand why her courage, which you acknowledge, cannot be divorced from her views on Islam. Why can’t she be honored for her struggle for the humane treatment of women — one she pursues even though it puts her very life in danger, which is something I daresay you have never done. (Nor have I.) You say that Tutu’s struggle against apartheid can be distinguished from his calling Israel Nazi, indeed, that the former is so laudable as to warrant his receiving an honorary degree. Why can’t you make the same distinction for Ms. Ali? To me, Tutu’s smear of Israel is far worse — far more vicious, far more absurd, far more defamatory, far more indicative of bigotry — than anything Ms. Ali has said about Islam. Her opinions, unlike Tutu’s, are grounded in evidence. Millions of Muslim girls have had their genitals mutilated. Many are the victims of honor killings. Many have been forced to marry persons they did not wish to marry. But there is nothing –I repeat nothing — that Israel has done in the 66 years of its existence that is even remotely comparable to Nazism. (It goes without saying that when bigots say that Israel is like Nazi Germany, what they have in mind is not the construction of the autobahns or the achievement of full employment.)
But of course when Tutu was awarded an honorary degree, the Brandeis faculty was mute. The double standard and hypocrisy this suggests when juxtaposed against the current opposition to Ms. Ali’s receiving the same degree is really — and here I must be blunt — repulsive. The fact that when Tutu received his honorary degree he did not — on the day he received the degree — smear Israel is true but trivial. The same for Kushner, whose claim that the most repugnant American Jews are those who strongly support Israel is the kind of ad hominem attack I would expect from a hyperactive undergraduate, not the recipient of an honorary degree. To the best of my knowledge, Kushner has provided no evidence for his smear, no doubt because none exists.
And as for making “people of differing religious views feel at home,” I don’t think that that should trump the search for truth “even unto its innermost parts.” By your reasoning, any speech that caused a Brandeis student of a particular religion not to feel at home should be banned. What you are therefore giving such people is the proverbial “heckler’s veto.” And as for the Ali case in particular, your statement that Ms. Ali would not be speaking at the commencement makes the heckler’s veto Muslim students at Brandeis have exercised successfully even less defensible. Ensuring that all students always feel at home when it comes to their religion is to ensure that Brandeis has no students whatsoever. I repeat, feeling uncomfortable when opinions other than your own are expressed is an integral part of college, and an inescapable part of life.
In short, unlike you I find Ms. Ali’s “intolerance” laudable because what she is intolerant of is intolerant itself. And in purely human terms, her willingness to risk her life pursuing the laudable objective of saving the lives of Muslim women — they constitute 91% of the victims of honor killings in the world today — fully justifies her receiving an honorary degree. (Of course I am not suggesting that courage alone is reason for awarding honorary degrees. Were that the case, they’d be given to persons who climbed Mt. Everest.)
Finally, I find unbelievable Lawrence’s claim that no one in the Brandeis administration knew anything of Ms. Ali’s views on Islam prior to the demands of CAIR and a significant minority of Brandeis faculty that Ms. Ali be denied the honorary degree she had previously been promised. But even if his claim is true, Brandeis should not have yielded, for the reasons I’ve tried to explain here.
Whatever the case, Lawrence’s cowardice in this instance is consistent with his action — or lack of action — in the Hindley Affair. Shortly after his inauguration I wrote to him recommending that on behalf of the university he make proper restitution to Donald Hindley for the reprehensible way he was punished by the Reinharz administration, which acted in the name of the university, for merely explaining to his students the origin of the term “wetback.” He refused to do so.
P.S. Given the outcry outside of academia that followed the announcement that Ms. Ali would not receive the honorary degree she had been offered, and which she had accepted, I have been struck by the almost complete absence of comparable condemnation inside the academy. More specifically I’m unaware of any Brandeis faculty publicly criticizing the decision. Is the liberal/left echo chamber that is the Brandeis faculty totally without dissenting (i.e. conservative) opinions? I ask the question only rhetorically, because it is clear that the university seeks only cosmetic diversity, rather than intellectual diversity, which is the only kind of diversity that matters in higher education.
From: Stephen Whitfield [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, April 21, 2014 8:44 PM
To: Bergman, Jay (History)
Subject: Fwd: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Dear Professor Bergman, Your open letter to President Fred Lawrence deserves a rebuttal. I speak only for myself, nor do I have any knowledge of what led him to decide to rescind the honorary degree to Ms. Ali. But I believe that his decision is not only defensible; it was the correct one.
At first I was thrilled to learn that she was to be given an honorary degree. Her courage and her independence of mind are admirable; the price she has paid for her beliefs is high. But the more I actually learned of her views, the more problematic they appeared to me, and that is why Brandeis made the right decision.
Unlike many scholars and polemicists who have denounced radical Islam or Islamism, and here I am thinking of Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, Bassam Tibi, and even Daniel Pipes, she does not draw a distinction between the religion itself and the fanatical, violent, dangerous versions of it that any decent person must abhor and oppose. Even when given an opportunity to make that distinction, as in her interview in “Reason” magazine, she made a point of refusing to do so. In her two public statements since the rescinding, she did not draw such a distinction (though I believe it is an elemental one). For her Islam is simply “the new fascism,” an evil that must be “defeated.” To condemn an entire “Abrahamic faith” like that collides with the historic commitment of Brandeis University (or so I would like to believe) to respect religious differences. She makes a point of being religiously intolerant.
Her views, given how awful much of Islam is, deserve a hearing, which is why the university expressed the hope, in withdrawing the honorary degree, that she would in the future speak on campus, and have her views subjected to attentiveness and scrutiny. In any case her views would not have been heard at Commencement exercises, since she was never to be the Commencement speaker, so the issue your letter raises–of an intellectual challenge that may make students uncomfortable–is irrelevant. Also dubious is your claim that that Ms. Ali has been “condemning aspects of Islam.” It is Islam itself that she, presumably in part due to her atheism, condemns.
The analogy that you drew to the honorary degrees given to Tony Kushner and Bishop Tutu is false. Their views of Israel were irrelevant to their selection–Kushner for his acclaimed gifts as a playwright, Tutu for his brave fight against apartheid. By contrast Ms. Ali’s courage cannot be separated from her opinions of Islam, opinions that (I repeat) even dedicated foes of “Islamism” distance themselves from. That Ms. Ali’s opinions deserve a hearing (which I fully favor) is quite different from whether she herself should be honored by an institution that, from the beginning, has sought to make people of differing religious views feel at home.
I attended the commencements in which Kushner and Tutu were honored for their achievements, and I can assure you that neither of them “smeared” Israel. I am glad that they did not do so. But even if they had, isn’t it your own claim that education is about challenging students with views that might make listeners uncomfortable?
I don’t think this episode is a matter of intimidation by “narrow-minded” faculty. If I had to guess, most faculty members would have wanted Brandeis to continue its academic partnership with Al-Quds University, despite the ugly anti-Israel demonstrations occurring there. I want to teach at a university in which views of the faculty carry weight. But in this case Fred Lawrence has ignored such wishes, and has continued the suspension of the partnership with a Palestinian university that harbors a malicious and menacing anti-Israel contingent. He has made the right decision despite what I suspect is the majority of the faculty’s opinion. That is also why I simply don’t recognize your characterization of the presidential decision to withdraw the honorary degree from Ms. Ali.
Sincerely, Steve Whitfield (American Studies Program)