|Ayaan Hirsi Ali|
Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., USA has caved in to pressure from Muslim students and rescinded its plan to honour Ayaan Hirsi Ali with a an honorary degree on 8 May.
If there is anyone who can be described a role model for Muslim girls who want to take control of their own lives, then it is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A former muslim and member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2008, she is an outspoken advocate for women's rights and a critic of Islam. Born in Somalia and raised as a strict Muslim, she survived a civil war, beatings, genital mutilation and a forced marriage before escaping to Holland and finally renouncing her faith in her 30s. She described the moment thus:
I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, "I don’t believe in God." I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.
A fuller account can be read here, in one of the most inspiring and powerful arguments for Atheism I have ever read.
Brandeis University was founded as a secular, co-educational establishment in 1948, soon after World War II and the Holocaust, when many US universities were racially, religiously and gender segregated. It had been assumed that Ali epitomised all that the University stood for, hence the honour. However, Muslim students raised a petition, pointing to a 2007 interview with Reason magazine in which she said of Islam:
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.
Brandeis University claimed to be unaware of this and decided it was not something they wished to be associated with and withdrew the offer of the honorary degree.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has responded in typically measured and dignified style with:
Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.
When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. 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. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.
What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not "overlook certain of my past statements," which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.
What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The "spirit of free expression" referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.
Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me "to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues." Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to "engage" in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck — and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.
I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed women and girls everywhere.
And so American Muslim girls in general, and Brandeis students in particular, have been deprived of the opportunity to hear one of the most inspiring advocates of the principles of secular, liberal freedoms and human rights that Brandeis University was founded on. They have been denied this by those to whom everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands for and represents is anathema - the right of women to control over their own bodies and their own destinies and the extension of full human rights and the right to respect and dignity to all members of society.
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