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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Students’ outcry prompts Brandeis to reconsider award

Published: April 11, 2014
Section: Front Page, News

Due to outrage from students and staff across campus and beyond, Brandeis released a statement on Tuesday, April 8, saying, “Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement.” A petition started by students of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and a separate petition letter signed by faculty members drew tremendous support from the Brandeis community, as both groups protested Brandeis’ announcement on March 31 that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be receiving an honorary degree at commencement for the class of 2014. The petitions spoke against Hirsi Ali’s public comments against the religion of Islam as a whole, which deeply hurt community members and appealed to a wider discussion of social justice.

The petition created by Sarah Fahmy ’14 on gained over 6,800 signatures between Monday afternoon and Tuesday evening, many of them from the Brandeis community, but some from people across the country and worldwide. The petition states, “The selection of Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree is a blatant and callous disregard by the administration of not only the Muslim students, but of any student who has experienced pure hate speech. It is a direct violation of Brandeis University’s own moral code as well as the rights of Brandeis students.” The students recognized that Hirsi Ali is a women’s rights activist who has served in Dutch parliament, and later moved to the U.S. to work at the American Enterprise Institute. She works to increase equality and freedom for women. Yet students still felt that her outspoken Islamophobic comments made her the wrong type of person to award an honorary degree at commencement.

Brandeis faculty also wrote a letter to President Fred Lawrence that was signed by 87 faculty members. The letter opens with, “We are writing to urge you to rescind immediately the invitation to Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali for an honorary doctorate, a decision about which we are shocked and dismayed, owing to her virulently anti­-Muslim public statements.” Although there has been an outpouring of support for these petitions in the Brandeis community, the outside community has not been nearly as welcoming. “I am deeply distressed by hateful comments on that Facebook page directed toward Muslim students and their supporters. Muslim students, faculty and staff need everyone’s support at this difficult time,” Bernadette Brooten (NEJS), who was highly involved in the letter, wrote in an email to The Hoot.

Since an award of a honorary degree aligns the university with the recipient’s work, the letter further states, “The University bestows honorary degrees, in part, to ‘identify the University with the values expressed through the work and accomplishments of the honoree’ and ‘draw positive attention to the University as an institution that respects and encourages such values and the manner in which those values are expressed.’” The letter states that commencement is not the appropriate venue at which Hirsi Ali should be recognized, as “her presence threatens to bring unnecessary controversy to an event that should rightly be about celebrating Brandeis’ graduates and their families.”

Both petitions fully recognize that Hirsi Ali has experienced atrocities, and her work in fighting against female genital cutting, forced marriages and honor killings, among others, is highly valuable. “These phenomena are not, however, exclusive to Islam,” the faculty letter addressed to President Lawrence states.

The Brandeis Muslim Students Association (MSA) released a statement to The Hoot regarding the university’s decision to withdraw Hirsi Ali’s name as a degree recipient. “At this point, we would only like to extend our deepest gratitude to President Frederick Lawrence for his immense support and for his courage. We are overwhelmed with the positive and kind remarks that we have received from Brandeis students and faculty alike, and we are extremely proud of the strength and unity of our school community,” the MSA wrote.

Brandeis’ statement on Tuesday affirmed that the university respects Hirsi Ali’s “work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” but stated that “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” The statement welcomed Hirsi Ali to visit Brandeis at another time to engage in a discussion with students but said that commencement was a time to focus primarily on students’ success.

There has been an intense backlash against the Muslim community and its allies, reaching as far as the national news media. In addition to news stories, some individuals have reached out to faculty and students in the MSA with virulent responses. Bernadette Brooten forwarded some of the hateful messages she has received to The Hoot, and they contain violent and expletive language. The analogies the commentators make are cruel and absurd, and will not be printed. The remarks are very personal, and although The Hoot has only received these personal emails from Brooten, she estimates that many other students in the Muslim community have also been attacked.

“We are tabling to raise awareness among students; we feel like it’s gone viral throughout faculty members and not so much through the students yet,” Sarah Fahmy ’14 said in an interview just before the student petition was posted online. “The University is not giving us any respect or dignity to graduate and be happy with our family. Instead we’re being targeted and they’re honoring a woman who preaches hate speech against us,” Fahmy said.

Students were outraged at the prospect that Hirsi Ali would be honored at their graduation, and said they, and others, were prepared to walk out of commencement. “I am planning on walking out of my graduation in my cap and gown if this woman is honored,” Fahmy said. “My dad is going to walk out with me if she does end up coming. He thinks it’s such an insult to parents; it’s such a joyous occasion, and you’re sending us with this message of hate.” Ayesha Malik ’14, co-president of the MSA, said.

Hirsi Ali is quoted by David Cohen in the London Evening Standard as saying, “Violence is inherent in Islam—it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder … 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 … Islam is the new fascism.” In a 2007 interview with Reason magazine, Rogier van Bakel asked her, “Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?” Hirsi Ali responded, “Only if Islam is defeated.” Van Bakel followed by asking, “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?” Hirsi Ali responded, “No. Islam, period.”

There have been some misleading statements from national media, which seem to indicate that Hirsi Ali was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony. She was not extended an invitation to speak at commencement but rather to receive an honorary degree. Brandeis has specifically invited her to have a discussion at the university at an alternative time.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself released a comment against the university on Thursday as published in the Weekly Standard. She wrote, “For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings,’ and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices.” On Thursday evening, students Daniel Mael ’15 and Joshua Nass ’14 spoke on Fox News regarding the withdrawal of her award. Nass invited Hirsi Ali to come speak at Brandeis, and both criticized the university for no longer granting her the award.

There is a long process to choose an honorary degree recipient, as detailed on the Board of Trustees webpage. Anyone may submit a nomination for a degree candidate to the Honorary Degrees Committee, which chooses certain nominations to present to the Board of Trustees. The Board approves nominations, and the president then chooses degree recipients from this list of approved names.