Under fire from students and Muslim activists, Brandeis University has canceled plans to present Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the feminist and prominent critic of Islam, with an honorary degree at its commencement ceremonies in May, saying some of her statements were at odds with the school’s “core values.”
Ms. Ali, a native of Somalia and a former member of the Dutch Parliament, is known for her feminist work but also for her anti-Islam views, including such comments as calling the religion a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
“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,” Brandeis said in a statement Tuesday.
“That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values.”
The university said it would welcome Ali “to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”
About a week earlier, the Waltham, Mass., university had announced that Ali would be among five people to be awarded an honorary degree at its May 18th commencement ceremonies. The blowback to the announcement was almost immediate, as Brandeis students and leaders in the Muslim community called attention to Ali’s record of publically blasting Islam, including in one interview calling for a “war” on the entire religion.
On Wednesday, a student-run petition against Ali’s participation in the ceremonies had reached upwards of 6,000 signatures on Change.org.
“The selection of 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,” the petition read.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim advocacy group, also weighed in, writing a letter to Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence that read: "Whatever Ali has done in the area of human rights has been irreparably tarnished by her anti-Muslim and anti-constitutional rhetoric.”
“While Ali is free to spew anti-Muslim hate in any venue she chooses, she does not have a similar right to be honored for that hate by a prestigious university,” the council said.
Ali, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, has written and lectured on her personal experience with Islam as a child in her native Somalia, where she underwent genital cutting, and as a young women in Kenya.
In 1992, she won political asylum to move to the Netherlands and in 2003 was elected to the Dutch Parliament, from which she resigned in 2006 over allegations she had not been wholly truthful about her circumstances in applying for asylum.
In 2004, having renounced Islam for atheism, Ali wrote the screenplay for the fictional, politically-charged film “Submission,” which portrays the abuse of Muslim women. Soon after the release of the film, its director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in Amsterdam by a radical Islamist, who also threated Ali’s life.
In 2007, Ali established the AHA Foundation, which works to “help protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture,” according to its website. The foundation focuses primarily on combating genital cutting, honor violence, and forced marriage.
That same year, Ali gave an interview to The London Evening Standard in which she told the paper that “violence is inherent in Islam” and went on to call Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that “legitimates murder.” She also called Islam “the new fascism.”
In another interview with Reason Magazine later that year, she said of Islam: "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."
Ali went on to clarify to the interviewer that she was talking not just about radical Islam but about the entire religion.
In a statement, Brandeis University officials expressed “regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”
“Commencement is about celebrating and honoring our extraordinary students and their accomplishments,” the statement said, “and we are committed to providing an atmosphere that allows our community's focus to be squarely on our students.”