After outcry, Brandeis backs away from honoring critic of Islam

In this Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 photo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of the film "Submission," which criticized the treatment of women in traditional Islam and led to the murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, talks to a reporter in New York. Brandeis University in Massachusetts is taking heat from some of its own about plans to give an honorary degree to Ali, who has made comments critical of Islam. (AP Photo/Shiho Fukada)
In this Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 photo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of the film "Submission," which criticized the treatment of women in traditional Islam and led to the murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, talked to a reporter in New York.
Shiho Fukada/AP photo

After growing criticism and petitions from students and faculty, Brandeis University has decided not to award an honorary degree to a women’s rights advocate who has spoken out against Islam.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist, has called Islam “the new facism” and has said “violence is inherent in Islam,” according to The New York Times.

The university released a statement Tuesday, saying Ali’s name was withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient for this year’s commencement.

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She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values.

Ali was set to receive an honorary degree at the unversity’s 63rd commencement on May 18. The move to cancel the honor came after outcry from members of the unversity community.

Senior Sarah Fahmy created a change.org petition,which received thousands of signatures. Also, more than 85 faculty members signed a letter to Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, asking that Ali to be removed as an honorary degree recipient, the Associated Press reports. The Council on American-Islamic Relations called for Ali to not be honored.

On Tuesday, juniors Alina Cheema, president of the Muslim Students Association at Brandeis, and Yasmin Yousof, who also serves on the board of the group, wrote an oped in The Justice, a student newspaper, calling the decision to honor Ali a “personal attack” on the school’s muslim community.

“What is important here is that Brandeis always calls for social justice, and honoring Ms. Ali runs in contradiction to Brandeis’s principles,” Muslim chaplain Dr. Talal Eid told Boston.com. “We cannot support someone who expresses hate of any religion.”

Eid, who also serves as an adviser to students, said that while Ali has shown “courage in women’s rights” and he shares some of her same concerns, he doesn’t believe she should criticize the whole religion.

“Her concerns are my concerns, but I would never say my religion is bad,” Eid said. “Those people [terrorists] hijacked my religion and they have given my religion a bad name.”

In its statement, the university also expressed “regret” that they were not aware of Ali’s statements earlier. However, Ali has been quoted making comments critical of Islam, the Associated Press reports.

That includes a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine in which she said of the religion: "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 that we are at war with Islam. And there's no middle ground in wars."

With the move to not honor Ali, Brandeis may now face more criticism, The New York Times notes.

Having drawn fire for inviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Brandeis may now take criticism from other camps, whether for disavowing Ms. Hirsi Ali's views, or for giving in to Muslim activists.

Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali's critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far.

Ali was born in Somalia and was raised in a strict Muslim family, but renounced her faith when she was in her 30s after surviving female genital mutilation, a civil war, and an arranged marriage, according to the Associated Press.

She is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she researches women’s rights in Islam as well as Islam’s role in the west. According to AEI, she immigrated to the Netherlands in 1992 and served on the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. She also helped produce the film “Submission” about the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. In 2007, Ali established the AHA Foundation to address violence against women and women’s rights.

Though Ali will not be honored at Brandeis, the university did say in its statement that she is welcome to come to the school in the future to “engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”