Brandeis U. Dishonors Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Just as the city of Boston was once the cradle of a new ideal of liberty, we need to return to our roots by becoming once again a beacon of free thought and civility for the 21st century. . . 

We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged. I’m used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen . . .

Those are words Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a brave critic of Islam, would have spoken at Brandeis University, upon receiving an honorary degree next month. Except that the university crumpled in the face of Muslim students, some faculty, and activist groups, and shamefully disinvited her. Bruce Bawer reports that the push to disinvite her was predicated on the claim that (in the words of the Council on American-Islamic Relations) she is a “notorious Islamophobe.” That incendiary term is a notorious smear.

It is calculated to silence all critical dialogue about Islam. It bundles together fundamentally different things in one package: irrational animosity to the religion and its adherents — with reasoned judgment and critique of the religion’s ideas and implications. To brand someone an “Islamophobe” is to condemn them as bigoted, racist, mindlessly fear-driven. Utterly dishonest, the “Islamophobe” smear aims to vilify rational discussion and render legitimate, important questions verboten. Case in point: in the speech she had intended to give, Ayaan Hirsi Ali asked:

Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? Is it blasphemy — punishable by death — to question the applicability of certain seventh-century doctrines to our own era? Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation.

Considering that a jihadist movement blights the face of the globe, inflicting misery, subjugation, and mass death wherever it can, we need to challenge and criticize that movement’s ideology. The Brandeis Affair is an opportunity to push back on the smears and intimidation. The ideal at stake is the freedom of speech. Taking it seriously means that no ideology, no viewpoint, secular or religious, can be exempt from criticism. Will we stand for that ideal, or crouch and pander and succumb?