©2014 Kenneth N. Margolin
In an act of depressing moral cowardice, Brandeis University president, Frederick Lawrence, revoked an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to receive an honorary degree, after complaints by CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), and an assortment of students, professors and others. Ms. Ali was to have been honored for her work on behalf of women's rights in the Muslim world. She knows something about the oppression of women in parts of Muslim majority countries, having been born in Somalia to a religious Muslim family, and subjected to genital mutilation, an unwanted marriage at a young age, and other assaults on her humanity in the name of her religion. In order to escape the marriage, Ms. Ali sought and was granted political asylum in Holland She ultimately became a member of the Dutch Parliament. She also wrote the script for a short film titled, Submission, depicting repression of women under Islam. The film was directed by Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered by an Islamic terrorist as a result – a death threat directed at Ms. Ali was pinned to Theo Van Gogh's chest. For a time, Ms. Ali went into government-assisted hiding with 24-hour guard.
From Holland, Ms. Ali emigrated to the United States, where she is now a citizen, and affiliated with the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. She has renounced Islam, and considers herself an atheist. Throughout her time in Holland and our own country, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been an eloquent and insistent voice demanding reform in Muslim majority countries and respect for women's rights. She has spoken against genital mutilation, honor killings, forced marriage, and treatment of women like chattel. Ms. Ali is not politically correct in the manner with which she criticizes Islam as she believes it to be widely practiced. Some of her controversial statements have included claims that Islam is incompatible with democracy, that it is the "new fascism," and that Islam must be "defeated" before it can "mutate into something peaceful." While some of her comments may have been provocative, she is not a hater, and her work on behalf of women's rights has been tireless.
Federick Lawrence, in revoking Ms. Ali's honorary degree, claimed that he was unaware of her more controversial statements about Islam, a claim that it is hard to credit, as her pronouncements have been public and well known, and presumably an institution as sophisticated as Brandeis, vets individuals before offering them honorary degrees. The more likely scenario is that he simply quailed when confronted by angry opposition to Ms. Ali. Thus, students at Brandeis, a university named after Justice Louis Brandeis, one of America's great champions of freedom of speech, will be deprived of hearing and learning from a courageous women who has learned life lessons unlike their own, simply because she was figuratively shouted down.
There is a connection between the sad episode of Brandeis University and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and injustices in college disciplinary proceedings, especially when the charges involve speech alleged to have been harassment. Academia has increasingly become a place where controversial people and ideas are silenced by those believing that college should be a place of quiet inoffensiveness. As a result, bold, confrontational, or intemperate speech is often labeled offensive, racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted, with such accusations reflexively believed. In this hypersensitive environment, where censorship is not thought to be destructive, college administrators often join the howling mob, and impose censorship. Under many college codes of conduct, a student stating publicly on campus, words identical to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's most controversial comments, might find themselves accused of religiously-based harassment. Many students have found themselves charged, sanctioned, suspended, and even expelled for merely using strong speech to state their opinions about sensitive matters involving race, sex, religion, national origin, or sexual identity.
The antidote to the scourge of collegiate fear of controversial speech, and love of censorship, is courage – the courage to hear what one does not wish to hear, to be confronted with thoughts that one hates, to learn how to deal with them, ignore them, or combat them with more persuasive ideas. Until such transformation occurs on college campuses, students will be charged unfairly with conduct code violations for the crime of brashness, insensitivity, provocativeness, or rebellion. At the same time, and in the same vein, dynamic and powerful voices like those of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, will be silenced.