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

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.”