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Liberalism Ends at Home

It is striking that America’s campuses, a sphere arguably dominated by liberals and their agenda, have become places where real tolerance and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack. While left-wing progressives love to claim that they advocate talking truth to power and champion dissenting voices, when presented with views that transgress their own thought system they all too reflexively reach for the censorship button. Kevin Williamson in his piece The Liberal Gulag cites a plethora of examples of liberals having not only demonized those out of line with the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, but he even details instances where “liberals” have advocated the taking of harsh measures against those not sufficiently adhering to left-think.   

The matter of how Islam is discussed on our campuses is a case in point. Recent events demonstrate how the doctrine of political correctness is being used to try and shut down the kind of discussion about Islam that other cultures and religions are routinely subject to. Yesterday brought the announcement by Brandeis University that it has withdrawn its decision to award human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree. These moves come in the wake of a campaign similar to the one currently pressuring universities into not showing the documentary Honor Diaries which highlights the work of Muslim women speaking out against the domestic abuse that women are subject to in parts of their community. In both of these cases the accusation of Islamophobia has been employed in an effort to drive out those who have been in anyway critical of practices in the Islamic world.   

Having been raised in Somalia, and then forced to flee ‘tolerant’ Holland when police informed her they could no longer protect her from those threatening to kill her as an apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali certainly knows about the dark side of hard-line Islam. Once she’d escaped her background, it would have been so easy for someone who suffered the abuse Ali did to have simply kept her head down and lived a quiet life. Instead she has valiantly and tirelessly campaigned for women’s rights in the Islamic world and having served as a member of the Dutch parliament she is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. An honorary degree from Brandeis would have been just a small token of recognition to her unimaginable fearlessness. Instead the university authorities have caved in the face of a campaign by Muslim groups that accuses Ali of having demonized all Islam. It may be true that at times Ali has not expressed such a clear distinction between extremist and moderate Islam, but one cannot help but feel that in many of these people’s eyes her real crime was to have spoken out all. For having dared to criticize Islam Ali has risked her life, but in revoking the award, Brandeis sets itself on the same side of the spectrum as those who insist it is unacceptable to criticize Islam.

It is this same argument about the failure to acknowledge a difference between moderate and extremist Islam that is being used to prevent Honor Diaries from being shown on campuses. Both the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois have been pressured into canceling screenings. Yet here, those speaking in the documentary have been very clear about drawing a distinction between moderate and hardline Islam. When the Council on American Islamic Relations—which has been loudly opposed to the film—was invited to debate the subject the group reportedly responded that the film was “so hopelessly anti-Muslim that they couldn’t dignify it with their presence.” This only adds to the suspicion that this whole campaign is actually about wishing to prevent critical discussion of anything relating to Islam.

Qanta Ahmed, who worked on Honor Diaries, wrote in National Review that, “Just like the women and girls it portrays, the movie has been silenced and its progenitors shamed.” Exactly the same shaming is now being inflicted on Ali because she has dared to speak out. In the petition opposing Ali, one signatory writes “She is not a role model, and certainly not someone whose ideas should be welcome in a university campus, where tolerance should be spread through kind words and loving spirit.” But this is precisely the problem, when the left-liberal notion sets in that tolerance means endorsing all cultures and ideologies, including intolerant ones. Accordingly, the only people who cannot be tolerated are those who refuse to embrace this ultra-tolerance of all things, such as Ali. 

Responding to the idea that Ali might receive the award, Brandeis’s chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies Joseph Lumbard remarked, “this makes Muslim students feel very uneasy.” But as we have seen with Jewish students and the demonization of Israel, hurt feelings are not considered reason for censorship, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the anti-Israel campaign has turned from fair debate to outright intimidation and bigotry and still university authorities have been reluctant to intervene. The fact that Muslim student groups seem to be gaining a veto over what is “offensive” is a sign that this is really about the contours of political correctness.

As Ahmed writes, “Constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom does not mean that we can censor the examination of cultures…does not mean abandoning difficult debate for fear of offending believers.” Yet a dangerous precedent is being set. Liberals delight in ridiculing religious conservatives in the West, but within their own sphere of influence—the universities—they refuse to promote liberal values where other cultures are concerned.  


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