Degree recipient triggers outcry
Numerous members of the University community have expressed outrage at the selection of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an honorary degree recipient for its 63rd annual commencement ceremony, which was announced last Monday along with the names of the other recipients and the individual who will deliver the commencement address.
Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born women's rights activist who has campaigned against female genital mutilation but is also well known for her critical view of Islam; she has at various times called Islam a "backwards religion" and a "destructive, nihilistic cult of death" that legitimizes murder. She formerly lived in the Netherlands and was a member of Dutch Parliament until it was discovered that she had provided false information on an asylum application to gain entry into the country. In response to this, Hirsi Ali claimed that she lied on her asylum application because she was fleeing a forced marriage. She had also previously disclosed inaccurate information through several sources before the controversy, including through her book The Son Factory.
After resigning from her position due to the ensuing scandal, she moved to the United States to join the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute-an organization dedicated to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise according to its website-where she is now a visiting fellow.
The decision to award her an honorary degree has drawn strong reactions from many members of the Brandeis community, especially faculty and students. Prof. Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) said in an interview with the Justice that she believes this decision is not in the University's best interest. "Hirsi Ali represents values that Brandeis, in naming itself after Justice [Louis] Brandeis, ... was founded in noble opposition to," said Campbell.
Campbell also said that she was concerned about the awarding of the degree because of a lack of consultation with the faculty during the selection process. In an email to the Justice, she wrote that she was "astonished to find out that this choice, to honor Ms. Hirsi Ali for her contributions to 'women's rights,' had been made without consulting the WGS Core Faculty." s=She noted that the core faculty in the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies program had not been contacted either.
In a statement issued on behalf of the administration, Senior Vice President for Communications Ellen de Graffenreid wrote that University President Frederick Lawrence "is aware of concerns that have been expressed following the announcement of the selection of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an honorary degree recipient."
She also added that Lawrence was reaching out to members of the Brandeis community to discuss the controversy, but did not respond to requests for comment on which individuals have been contacted by press time.
In addition to vocal opposition to Hirsi Ali, there have been more tangible measures to oppose her presence at commencement.
A student petition at www.change.org, started by Sarah Fahmy '14, calls on Lawrence to rescind the offer of an honorary degree. As of Monday evening at 11 p.m., the petition had over 600 signatures.
Faculty members also organized to protest the decision through a letter to Lawrence. The letter calls on Lawrence to rescind the offer because of her "virulently anti-Muslim sentiments," as well as re-institute a faculty committee to review potential candidates before honorary degrees are awarded, since such a committee could have "warned [Lawrence] about the horrible message that this [decision] sends to the Muslim and non-Muslim comminutes at Brandeis and beyond."
The letter was sent to the faculty on Sunday evening, and by late Monday had received over 75 signatures from various faculty members.
Prof. Jytte Klausen (POL) wrote in an email to the Justice that giving Hirsi Ali a degree "undermines years of careful work to show that Brandeis University promotes the ideals of shared learning, religious toleration and coexistence, irrespective of religion."
She further wrote that Hirsi Ali should be invited to speak on campus since the University allows individuals of all views the opportunity to express them but that honorary degrees should only be given to "people who promote our mission of learning and toleration."
Klausen also expressed concern that Hirsi Ali's presence would detract from the overall experience of commencement, which is "not a hard-edged talk show or forum for confrontational endorsement of extreme views," but rather "a celebration where all should feel welcome."
She also called into question Hirsi Ali's political career, saying that it had been built on "complaining about refugees and immigrants" and calling for harsher measures to be directed at these groups.
Klausen also noted that Hirsi Ali's false statements on her Dutch refugee application and citizenship request was an offense "severe enough for the Minister of the Interior ... to annul Hirsi Ali's [Dutch] citizenship."
In addition to condemnation, the announcement has prompted Prof. Susan Lanser (ENG) to call not only for the award to be rescinded, but for a public apology issued by Lawrence to the greater Brandeis community. In an email to the Justice, Lanser wrote that she believes Hirsi Ali "is not worthy of a doctorate of humane letters from a university that claims to be committed to justice, respect, diversity and truth to its innermost parts."
She added that her outspoken views on Islam "foment an intolerance that is wholly antithetical to Brandeisian values."
While many faculty members and students are decrying Hirsi Ali's being offered the honorary degree, some are coming to her defense. Bernard Macy '79, an alumnus who came forward to defend the selection of Hirsi Ali as an honorary degree recipient, sent an email to Lawrence, numerous faculty members and the Justice expressing his support. Macy wrote that he was very impressed that Hirsi Ali "had the courage to speak and act out against an extremely vicious form of violence toward women, which, until recently, had been a topic that had not been politically correct to discuss."
Macy further expressed hope that "protection of women from this insidious form of mental, emotional and physical abuse" would be in line with the values of the University and firmly stated that Hirsi Ali is very deserving of an honorary degree.
Students have also expressed concern about the University's selection. Alina Cheema '15, co-president of the Muslim Students Association, said in an interview with the Justice that she and the MSA perceive Hirsi Ali's receiving a degree as alarming.
"[Hirs Ali] is well-known for her [anti-Islamic] beliefs ... and this is a slap in the face by the administration. Are they saying that we don't belong on this campus?" Cheema said. "How can the University claim to be so focused on social justice when they award a degree to someone with such radical views?"
Cheema also added that this situation has made her personally feel very uncomfortable as a Muslim on campus. "How am I supposed to tell a prospective Muslim student that [he or she] will be accepted on this campus ... when the administration condones this?"
When asked if the MSA was preparing a response to the announcement, Cheema said that the MSA had been talking about the issue since the news broke on Monday. "We will not be quiet about this," said Cheema. "Any opportunity we have to work against this, we will take advantage of."
In addition to the perceived disconnect between Hirsi Ali's values and the University's, some have criticized the decision for damaging the University's reputation. Campbell wrote that she is worried this will be a "[public relations] disaster, and a step down a road we cannot take without losing our identity [as a university]."
Prof. Mitra Shavarini (WGS) also told the Justice in an email that the offer is not in line with the University's mission, unless it wishes to "incite hate, mistrust and division among its community."
She further stated that Hirsi Ali's approach to discourse "collapses thought in obscure, non-contextualized allegations that have no intellectual merit"-something Shavarini believes is radically opposed to the University's values of "intellectual exchange and the challenging of one's ideas."