Ron Radosh

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Islamists, and the Question of Free Speech in the Academy

A short time ago, Brandeis University took the step of dis-inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali from giving a talk at the forthcoming commencement ceremony, on the grounds that faculty who had protested her appearance had pointed out that she was not simply critical of Islamic practices, but blamed the religion of Islam itself for the kind of backward positions many Islamists took. Explaining her shock at the Brandeis position, Hirsi Ali gave the following statement to Time magazine:

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.

The result was that scores of academics as well as editorial writers rushed to her defense, attacking the university’s president and administration for their moral cowardice and their failure to stand up to those who wanted her views not to be heard at Brandeis — a university that ironically (given that it was created as a non-sectarian and co-educational institution honoring a major Zionist leader) often hosted virulent anti-Israel speakers and presented them with major awards. As Hirsi Ali herself noted, this was done in 1948, “at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students.”

At the same time, a major Zionist writer and defender of Israel, Yossi Klein-Halevi, writing with a Muslim colleague, Abdullah Antepli, rushed to print endorsing the Brandeis ban on Hirsi Ali.  As these two writers argued, both Muslims and Jews often promoted “each other’s renegades.” They put it this way:

Some Muslim groups enthusiastically embrace born Jews who spew a form of self-hatred that borders on anti-Semitism, while some Jewish groups sponsor born Muslims who have repudiated Islam and have made a career of exposing their former faith. In each case the message is the same: the only authentic representative of the faith community is one who repudiates its commitments and beliefs.

As the two writers saw it, Hirsi Ali had “crossed the line from critic of Islamist extremism to demonizer of Islam itself, repeatedly labeling the faith of more than a billion believers as an enemy against whom war must be waged.” Such a stance violated the university’s own promise to abide by “inclusivist values.”

If they paused to look at their own words, they would see that what they are really saying is that any public figure who disagrees with them about what Islam stands for cannot be allowed to make their case in public.  I do not pretend to be any expert on Islam, although I am sympathetic to Daniel Pipes’ argument that “radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution.” Pipes writes that he understands fully that moderate Muslims are “largely fractured, isolated, intimidated, and ineffectual.” He also, unlike Klein-Halevi, disagrees strenuously with engaging Islamists. The solution, he concludes, “ lies in Islam being modernized, dealing with issues like jihad, the status of women, and the role of Shari’a.” These issues are precisely the issues which Hirsi Ali regularly takes on.

Just yesterday, it was reported in Europe/Israel, a French Jewish website, that at a Muslim conference held in Paris, Hani Ramadan, the brother of the well-known Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan—who is widely but incorrectly regarded as a moderate–told the conference held by UOIF Bourget (the Union of Islamic Organizations in France) that “all evil comes from Jewish and Zionist barbarism.” The conference was held to discuss “what values for a changing society” should be adopted by contemporary European Muslims.

Clearly, at this mass gathering of Muslims, antisemitism was the one value that apparently all the delegates shared.  As the Europe/Israel website put it, “Unfortunately, antisemitism has occupied a prominent place with the intervention of Hani Ramadan (brother of Tariq) director of the Islamic Center of Geneva and presented as a ‘special guest’ to the applause of the public.” In his speech, Ramadan also said that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was to be condemned for “publicly wearing a kippuh” while he supported a ban on Muslim women wearing a a veil in public areas. He concluded his speech by saying that “against these international schemes of Zionist power, there is only one rampart: Islam.” He also refused to condemn French Muslim youth who went to Syria to wage jihad.

One wonders whether an American university would agree to host a speech by Hani Ramadan, using the argument that it is proper to engage with Islamists in the hope that it will show the American Muslim community that we allow even its most extreme representatives to speak on an American campus. I hope, of course, that such a situation never arises.  I do recall, however, that when the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to the United States to address the UN, he was invited by the president of Columbia University to present his views to the campus in a major speech.

It is clear, wherever one stands on the issue of whether or not Islam itself as a religion is to blame for the views of its exponents like Ramadan, that most Muslim spokesmen seem to be Islamists of the radical variety. That is why critics like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are regularly condemned and not allowed to speak at some campuses, and why she must constantly have bodyguards to protect her from attack.  When they suspended her appearance, the Brandeis administration was saying in effect: A critic of Islam cannot be allowed to make her case at a liberal arts university, since students cannot be afforded the chance to hear her critique of Sharia, the oppression by Islamic states against women, and her general views on the state of Islam as a religion. After all, the danger exists that some students might actually come to agree with what she says.

I argue that the university’s leaders in so doing have shown their contempt not only for Hirsi Ali, but for the students at their own university whom they do not trust to be able to make conclusions on their own. They have, indeed, violated the very basic tenets of academic freedom and the purpose of a liberal university itself.

And I suspect, not without good reason, that if someone proposed that Hani Ramadan or Tariq Ramadan be brought to the campus, they would allow him to proceed and make whatever speech he wanted. After all, to impose a ban, they would most likely argue, would make them guilty of “Islamaphobia.”