The Indefinite Man

The first time I saw Hirsi Ali it brought back memories of Oriana Fallaci speaking in a small room at Harvard 30 years before. Fallaci had the habit of leaning forward and jabbing at the air with a lighted cigarette to make points.  The ash of her cigarette end once grew so alarmingly long I suppressed an urge to rush up and catch it before it broke off and hit the carpet.  A half dozen others in the audience would have probably tried the same thing.  She had that effect — on me at least.  Hirsi Ali never smoked on the Sydney stage but she had the same kind of compulsive attractiveness, a quality which conjured up a line of men stretching to the back of the Sydney auditorium waiting for her autograph.


The real attractiveness of both women always lay in the projection of a kind of desperate bravery; the sort which made Fallaci a teenage guerilla in World War 2 and compelled Ali into becoming perhaps the most hated Muslim apostate in the world.  And nothing attracts so much as a damsel in danger. They both had the kind of unreasonable stubbornness, the sort of uncompromising character that in the end, proved too much for Brandeis University, at least as far as Ali was concerned. The university withdrew the honorary degree it had prepared to grant her, citing “past statements”.

Facing growing criticism, Brandeis University said Tuesday that it had reversed course and would not award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights and a fierce critic of Islam, who has called the religion “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

“We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the university said in a statement released eight days after it had announced that Ms. Hirsi Ali and four other people would be honored at its commencement on May 18.

One such “past statement” was an interview she gave with Reason Magazine in 2007 stating her views on Islam. She said of it: “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”.  In it there was no nuance, no hedging or ambiguity. Just an uncompromising awareness of being at war with an entity that also regarded her as a foe.


Like Oriana Fallaci, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is nothing if categorical and academic institutions are by their nature creatures of ambiguity.  They hate the definite. The one unforgivable sin in the academy is certainty; which if secretly harbored must be amply disguised in fashionable doubt; things always preferably being on the “one hand” and “the other hand”.

But there was nothing indefinite about Hirsi Ali. She flew her flag of defiance; nailed her colors to the mast; planted her banner on a hilltop. So when Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR and the Muslim student associations of Brandeis reminded the university that Ali’s views “makes Muslim students feel very uneasy” they were only stating a fact; not the fact that Islam was at war with its enemies — which it assuredly is — but only the fact that they felt uneasy in the presence of its foes.

Brandeis, no doubt wanted some of her star power to rub off on them — for universities grant degrees honoris causa for their own benefit rather than those whose prominence has taken them far beyond the need for a credential — little realizing that a certain kind of fame comes at the price of an equivalent notoriety.  When they saw the need to plant their foot in one definite camp or other they thought the better of it.

Indeed they should have stuck to honorees who’d made a career out of being elusive and minimally controversial, whose beliefs are can be clothed with plausible deniability, like previous honoris causa graduates: Madeleine Albright or Cory Booker. Or maybe Ramsey Clark or Walter Cronkite.  At a pinch they might run to Whoopi Goldberg or George Kennan.  They might even go as far as Michael Oren.


That might be the very limit.

But Hirsi Ali fell into that reproachable category of unapologetic individuals to which Curtis LeMay or William Tecumseh Sherman belong; to people of ugly directness whose views cannot be softened.  Individuals whose company at the dinner table we should regard with horror, however grateful we may be for their existence (so long as they don’t approach too closely).

LeMay once said of himself that he had a kind of B.O.  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.” LeMay was an S.O.B. of whom the only good thing that can be said is that he probably saved millions of lives.

It’s not what the Hirsi Alis says that bothers so much as the directness with which she says it. Most of us need a little wriggle room. We would rather belong to that part of humanity that claims has to be misled into doing unpleasant things or at least act under the impetus of anger or instinct of survival to justify acts they would otherwise not do. That’s why Shane has to wait until Wilson draws. To remain the hero. If  LeMay were Shane, he would have shot Wilson while he was drinking coffee. The ending would have been less tragic and cheaper, too. But we need the drug of emotion to claim reduced competence, that way we’re not really guilty, just caught up in events.

It is one thing to act under the impulse of the moment — it’s only human you know — but quite another to incarcerate or fight someone because of an order written down on a piece of paper, like it were a job or a requirement of patriotism.  That’s what soldiers and policeman are for. You know, the hired help. Proper people don’t do that sort of thing. And least they think of themselves as above it.  And Brandeis — like Harvard, the Ivy League and most of academia — is nothing if not a club for proper people.


And Hirsi Ali is rather too cut-and-dried, too lacking in nuance to be a really proper person. In a way you could argue Brandeis did the right thing by withdrawing the honorary degree.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, love her or hate her, was far too definite an article for the academy to embrace. Now if universities could only bring themselves to admit that half their Orientalist faculty are no proper sorts of gentlemen either, just hypocrites actually on the other side then there would be some rough balance.

But the ideologues in the academy know the form. They can keep up appearances which in the end is really what makes them acceptable.  In defense of universities, somebody has to provide a home for hypocrisy, if only to serve as a Holodeck of civility, however feigned.  For illusion itself serves a purpose; and we need to believe that it is possible to stay above the fray even if it is not; that if we surround ourselves with enough ivy and manicured grounds the hatreds of men can fade away into the soft evening shadows amid the Bach and Vivaldi.  We believe it, lest we despair.

The 2000 movie Memento, which explores our need to make sense of the world in terms that do not condemn us, the protagonist Leonard Shelby, who has a medical condition that makes him forget everything but what he did in the last few hours, tries to find out who is and what he is doing. At the end of the movie he is asked by another character if his memory loss is not really a subconscious effort to forget who he really is; an attempt to create the illusion of discovery so that he can deny what he knows;  to maintain the “sense of purpose … a romantic quest” imparts. “Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy…yes, I will.”  How else can we make it to tomorrow, if we don’t lie to ourselves?


Hirsi Ali and Brandeis want to define themselves in different ways. In Hirsi Ali’s case, her goal is clear. Brandeis on the other hand, has tried to be definitely indefinite; as little offensive and controversial as possible. But as Hirsi Ali points out in her response to the withdrawal of the honorary degree, by trying not to take sides Brandeis has taken sides anyway.

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.

Now Brandeis is in the unenviable position of appearing subservient to CAIR, since left to themselves, Brandeis would have given Hirsi Ali the degree. But at CAIR’s behest — or someone’s — they had a sudden change of heart. They make not think they are CAIR’s flunkeys but that is what the optics suggest. Maybe the lesson here — as Mozilla might have learned — is to know your own mind and stick to your guns. An institution with no mind of its own will soon find people telling it what to do.


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