Leaders of the Brandeis University Muslim Student Association penned an Op-Ed in The Justice to describe their issues with the university's decision to give human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali degree is an insult to Muslim students
By Alina Cheema and Yasmin Yousof
Special to the Justice
Published: Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, April 8, 2014
The Brandeis Muslim Student Association has worked endlessly to integrate itself into the Brandeis community, to be an active club on campus and make the student body more comfortable with Islam. It is with great sadness that we learn of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s selection as an honorary degree recipient. We see this decision as a personal attack on Brandeis’ Muslim students, and as minorities at a predominately white, Jewish university, many of us feel isolated and unwelcomed.
The irony of Brandeis University’s motto, “Truth, even unto its innermost parts” and the University’s decision to bestow an honorary degree on Ali, a woman whose political and public platform is anti-Islamic, is startling, unacceptable and intolerable.
We understand what Hirsi Ali has gone through. She has overcome horrific experiences in her lifetime, and she has the right to share her experiences however she sees will benefit society.
However, Hirsi Ali’s personal tragedies do not give her the absolute right to attack Islam as a religion. In her book Infidel, she states, “I wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that Islam is peace and tolerance.”
Hirsi Ali has called for the usage of military force to ensure the destruction of Islam, has vehemently reinforced the assumption that patriarchy and violence against women is unilaterally unique to Islam and non-Western nations and perpetuates the appalling presumption that Prophet Muhammad was a pedophile.
There is a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech. Hirsi Ali has shamelessly passed this boundary as her remarks no longer regard her experiences, but rather condemn an entire religion and other minorities as a result of her prejudices and biases. Instead of encouraging respectful discussions and debates, she incites and supports insensitivity and irresponsibility by abusing freedom of speech as a way to justify her hate speech.
Hirsi Ali’s work sells itself on helping women in Muslim majority countries. We want to highlight the many Muslim women working from within Islam to oppose violence toward women and children and to promote human rights in all of their aspects. What these female scholars are doing has been so much more effective than what Hirsi Ali has done.
Let us take, for example, the issue of female genital mutilation in villages in Somalia and sub-Saharan countries; female and male Muslim activists, such as the non-governmental organizations 28 Too Many and the Desert Flower Foundation, have successfully persuaded village elders in sub-Saharan countries to repudiate FGM in their villages.
Another example is Hauwa Ibrahim, a lawyer with roots in Nigeria. She has successfully and beautifully defended women accused of adultery in Shari’ah courts and has now published a handbook for lawyers working in Shari’ah courts. Moreover, we are now beginning to see a surge in interpretations of the Quran and Hadith via female scholarship.
It is important to note that Hirsi Ali’s work has been continually challenged by reputable, feminist Muslim scholars who insist that her work does not reflect the variety or the complexity of Muslim women’s lives or our social and political aspirations.
As Prof. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman (ENG) said in a letter to University President Frederick Lawrence, “the very women whose identities, experiences, and political needs that HirsiAli purportedly represents, are those who will be most demeaned by her receipt of this honor.” To again quote Professor Abdur-Rahman, Hirsi Ali’s narrative and political and public “stance of Western modernity and cultural superiority that depends on antiquated racist logics that present people from the Middle East and Africa as culturally backward and in need of the civilizing influences of the West” is inexcusable on the part of Brandeis.
The University presents honorary degrees so as 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.”
It seems as though the selection committee has grossly ignored the values expressed through Hirsi Ali’s work while subsequently choosing an honoree who will not bring positive attention to the University as an institution. We are questioning what value this University wishes to uphold.
We are receiving the message that Brandeis University believes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, her ideology and radical Islamophobia, are worthy of respect, celebration and encouragement. How are we to understand this as students of Brandeis University?
As Muslims on this campus and as students who contribute greatly to this University, we deserve respect and rights that every other student has—respect and rights to which, according to this institution itself, every student is entitled.
The selection of Hirsi Ali is a great disrespect to the Muslim students and moreover to the entire campus as a whole, to the faculty and students who truly embody the values and morals of social justice. Brandeis is isolating its Muslim students by bringing to commencement, one of the largest public gatherings under the name of this institution, a woman whose fame and public image lies solely on anti-Islam sentiments. This decision will certainly dampen the joyous occasion that the commencement ceremony is supposed to be for many Muslim graduates, non-Muslim allies and their families.
It is also important to consider how this will affect Brandeis Muslim chaplain Imam TalalEid’s presence at commencement as well. Brandeis has unapologetically disregarded the extremely uncomfortable position that Eid would be placed in sharing a ceremony with Hirsi Ali.
The administration has failed to comprehend the cruelty of this decision and recognize the long-term ramifications of its selection of Hirsi Ali, both on current students as well as prospective students.
This act on the part of the administration is completely disrespectful and hypocritical. Just as Islam Awareness Week 2014 has passed, we have seen an inspiring surge in solidarity from Brandeis toward the Muslim community on campus. We truly hope the Brandeis community can support us again (and anyone else who felt a personal attack through this decision) in asking University President Frederick Lawrence to rectify this appalling decision.
—Alina Cheema ’15 is the President and Yasmin Yousof ’15 is the Secretary of the Brandeis Muslim Students Association. This article was a joint effort by multiple other members of the Brandeis Muslim Students Association.