More on the Brandeis-Hirsi Ali controversy

April 10

In a previous post, I noted that Brandeis University had previously declined to disinvite a controversial commencement honoree (Tony Kushner), on the grounds that Brandeis honors people for their achievements without vetting their political views. This conflicts with Brandeis’s stated rationale for disinviting Hirsi Ali; Brandeis acknowledges that it continues to admire her activism on behalf of women’s rights, but finds some of her public statements to be in conflict with Brandeis’s “values.”

Getting beyond this embarrassing double standard, let’s go to the merits. First, while I admire Ms. Ali for her personal courage and her devotion to improving the plight of girls in women in the Islamic world, I can’t join those who endorse her views on Islam. As I’ve blogged before (though I can’t find the link), unless you believe that a particular version of a religion is “true,” it’s foolish to suggest that the religion itself is to blame for human actions based on that religion. Human beings interpret religious texts, and they should be held responsible for their actions, including how they interpret inevitably ambiguous religious tradition.

And religions evolve. Rabbinic Judaism, for example, evolved through interpretation to the extent that it often bears only a tangential relationship to the purported source material, the Torah. Islam, as mediated through human action, was historically often more tolerant of Jews living under it than was Christianity, even though if you compare the Quran to the Christian Bible it would seem that Christianity would obviously be the more “Love Thy Neighbor” religion. And so on. A great religion like Islam, with hundreds of years of commentary and interpretation, can inevitably be interpreted to be more liberal or less liberal, more tolerant or less tolerant, more belligerent or less belligerent. To the extent it’s been interpreted to be incompatible with liberalism, we should blame the interpreters who have created “radical Islamism” and criticize their ideology, not issue blanket condemnations of “Islam.” If the Catholic Church can evolve from what it was in the 19th century to what it is today, a decentralized religion like Islam surely is not static or monolithic.

Second, because Ms. Ali engages in blanket condemnation of Islam, and has expressed the desire to suppress it by force, I think she was a poor choice for an honorary degree (though a fine choice as a campus speaker or honoree in other contexts). Commencement should be a time to bring the community together, not to make some students, in this case students of Muslim background, feel like the university is disrespecting them. Of course, universities do this all the time to students on the political or Christian right (I had to suffer through a highly political commencement address by Marian Wright Edelman at my Brandeis commencement–it agitated my generally quiet, liberal/Democratic grandfather so much that he tried to heckled her from the bleachers (to the applause of the audience)!), but two wrongs etc.

Third, once Brandeis announced that Ms. Ali was to get an honorary degree, it should have stuck by that decision, especially given the Kushner precedent. There were various ways the university could have mitigated the situation. Most obviously, it could have issued a statement along the following lines: “We are honoring Ms. Ali for her work on women’s rights. Since her selection for an honorary degree, some members of the community have expressed dismay about certain controversial comments she has made over the years about the Islamic faith. Brandeis University respects all religions, and values all members of its community. Our admiration for Ms. Ali’s work on women’s rights does not imply our support for her views on any given political, social, or religious issue.”

Fourth, once Brandeis did decide to disinvite Ms. Ali, it could have done so in a less hamhanded way. For one thing, its press release implied that the decision was made in consultation with Ms. Ali, which she adamantly denies. Second, the press release suggested that it would welcome Ms. Ali to campus in the future for a “dialogue”. In university “pc speak,” “dialogue” means, “we are going to let you come here, but only in a context where you’re here to be criticized by the forces who oppose you because we’ve decided you’re too intolerant for us to simply give you a platform. That’s just insulting. Remember, Brandeis came to Ms. Ali, not the other other way around, so the university owed her more than a modicum of respect.

In short, it’s incompetence all the way around.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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Prof. Bradley A. Smith (guest-blogging) | April 10