Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Anti-Semitism and False Moral Equivalence

Yossi Klein Halevi is an admirable Israeli thinker, writer, and Jew, who recently authored Like Dreamers, a terrific book about Israel. I don’t know much about Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, except that Mr. Halevi counts him as a “beloved friend,” so I therefore trust that he is admirable as well.

That is why it is puzzling that Halevi and Antepli jointly posted an article last week entitled “What Muslims and Jews should learn from Brandeis,” on The Times of Israel blog. In their piece, they extol Brandeis and its president for rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom they call a Muslim “renegade.” Halevi and Antepli claim that Brandeis’s president provided Muslims and Jews with an “essential teaching moment,” inasmuch as “one of the ugliest expressions of the antipathy between Muslims and Jews is the tendency within both communities to promote each other’s renegades.” 

This is preposterous. Given the tsunami of anti-Semitism propagated by Muslims all over the world, whether through Jewish “renegades” or otherwise, the moral equivalence the authors posit could not be more misplaced. And this, in an article published just a few days after one of the latest “expressions of antipathy”–the terrorist murder of an Israeli Jew while he was driving his wife and children to a Passover seder.

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Yossi Klein Halevi is an admirable Israeli thinker, writer, and Jew, who recently authored Like Dreamers, a terrific book about Israel. I don’t know much about Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, except that Mr. Halevi counts him as a “beloved friend,” so I therefore trust that he is admirable as well.

That is why it is puzzling that Halevi and Antepli jointly posted an article last week entitled “What Muslims and Jews should learn from Brandeis,” on The Times of Israel blog. In their piece, they extol Brandeis and its president for rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom they call a Muslim “renegade.” Halevi and Antepli claim that Brandeis’s president provided Muslims and Jews with an “essential teaching moment,” inasmuch as “one of the ugliest expressions of the antipathy between Muslims and Jews is the tendency within both communities to promote each other’s renegades.” 

This is preposterous. Given the tsunami of anti-Semitism propagated by Muslims all over the world, whether through Jewish “renegades” or otherwise, the moral equivalence the authors posit could not be more misplaced. And this, in an article published just a few days after one of the latest “expressions of antipathy”–the terrorist murder of an Israeli Jew while he was driving his wife and children to a Passover seder.

To be sure, Halevi and Antepli disingenuously acknowledge, in passing, that the Muslim assault on Jews is “hardly comparable” to what they call the “public campaign in America by some Jews to discredit Islam.” That could and should have been the point of any intellectually and factually responsible piece on the subject. Instead, the entire point of Halevi and Antepli’s piece, beginning with its title, is precisely to compare the two. 

Moreover, calling Ms. Ali a Muslim “renegade” on a par with Jewish “renegades” is an equally false moral equivalence. Halevi and Antepli surely know Ms. Ali’s history. She was genitally mutilated at age 5; she would have been forced into a marriage had she not escaped eventually to Europe; her film-making colleague was stabbed to death in the Netherlands; she is continually threatened with her own murder–all in the name of Islam–and she has heroically devoted her life to trying to stop these kinds of outrages. That’s why she deserves to be honored, and that’s why it was cowardly for Brandeis to withdraw her honor. Are there Jewish renegades with anywhere close to a comparable history? Of course not. To omit these facts is disingenuous at best. 

In any event, for Halevi and Antepli to focus on what they claim is Muslim sensitivity to Ms. Ali’s statements supposedly “demonizing Islam”–statements that, as Ms. Ali says, her detractors take out of context–instead of the outrages that, as anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows she is trying to stop, is disgraceful. Given who she is and what she has gone through and what in totality she says, would Brandeis’s honoring her really have sent a message of “contempt” to Muslims, as Halevi and Antepli claim, or would it instead have sent a message of support to those millions oppressed in and by Muslim countries? And as long as we’re comparing, it is impossible to imagine that Halevi and Antepli believe that, as she is accused of advocating, Ms. Ali or anyone else will succeed in destroying Islam–the religion, as they say, of over a billion believers (who, according to them, are exquisitely sensitive to what one woman says); on the other hand, it’s unfortunately not too hard to imagine that, heaven forbid, Israel and thus Judaism itself could be destroyed.

To be worth anything, “civil dialogue” and “profound discussion,” as Halevi and Antepli say they want, must be based on the truth, and truth is absent from their piece.

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Brandeis and the Real War on Women

Our Tom Wilson and John Podhoretz have already ably dissected the craven decision of Brandeis University to bow to pressure from extremist Muslim groups and to rescind its offer of an honorary degree on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But now we are beginning to hear some defenses of the university’s decision that tell us more about what is wrong at Brandeis and the left than anything else. Up until now those who are rightly outraged by Brandeis’s cowardice have focused on the way the school’s administration was buffaloed into insulting Hirsi Ali by groups like CAIR and other apologists for radical and violent Islamists. But at this point it’s important to point out that perhaps the most important element of the story is not who is speaking up but who isn’t.

We have heard a great deal in the last couple of years from liberals about a “war on women” that was supposedly being waged by American conservatives. That meme played a crucial part in President Obama’s reelection and Democrats hope to repeat that success in this year’s midterms. Liberals have tried to mobilize American women to go to the polls to register outrage over the debate about forcing employers to pay for free contraception, a Paycheck Fairness Act that is more of a gift to trial lawyers than women, and attempts to limit abortions after 20 weeks. These are issues on which reasonable people may disagree, but what most liberals seem to have missed is the fact that there is a real war on women that is being waged elsewhere around the globe where Islamist forces are brutalizing and oppressing women in ways that make these Democratic talking points look trivial. It is that point that Hirsi Ali is trying to make in her public appearances.

But instead of rising in support of Hirsi Ali’s efforts to draw attention to these outrages, leading American feminists are silent. The only voices we’re hearing from the left are from men who are determined to justify Brandeis.

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Our Tom Wilson and John Podhoretz have already ably dissected the craven decision of Brandeis University to bow to pressure from extremist Muslim groups and to rescind its offer of an honorary degree on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But now we are beginning to hear some defenses of the university’s decision that tell us more about what is wrong at Brandeis and the left than anything else. Up until now those who are rightly outraged by Brandeis’s cowardice have focused on the way the school’s administration was buffaloed into insulting Hirsi Ali by groups like CAIR and other apologists for radical and violent Islamists. But at this point it’s important to point out that perhaps the most important element of the story is not who is speaking up but who isn’t.

We have heard a great deal in the last couple of years from liberals about a “war on women” that was supposedly being waged by American conservatives. That meme played a crucial part in President Obama’s reelection and Democrats hope to repeat that success in this year’s midterms. Liberals have tried to mobilize American women to go to the polls to register outrage over the debate about forcing employers to pay for free contraception, a Paycheck Fairness Act that is more of a gift to trial lawyers than women, and attempts to limit abortions after 20 weeks. These are issues on which reasonable people may disagree, but what most liberals seem to have missed is the fact that there is a real war on women that is being waged elsewhere around the globe where Islamist forces are brutalizing and oppressing women in ways that make these Democratic talking points look trivial. It is that point that Hirsi Ali is trying to make in her public appearances.

But instead of rising in support of Hirsi Ali’s efforts to draw attention to these outrages, leading American feminists are silent. The only voices we’re hearing from the left are from men who are determined to justify Brandeis.

At the Forward, Ali Gharib ignores the key issue of women’s rights and Hirsi Ali’s personal experiences. He merely repeats the smears of Hirsi Ali as a purveyor of hate speech against Muslims while doubling down on that meme by broadening the attack to the entire “hard line pro-Israel community” in which he includes not only COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard but also the reliably liberal Anti-Defamation League. He also attacks her for being a talking head in films which critique radical Islamists because they were produced by the Clarion Group, whose principle sin according to the radicals at CAIR (which was begun as a political front for Hamas fundraisers) was that many of those involved were Jews. Gharib is more circumspect and merely says they have ties to “the pro-Israel right.”

A more thoughtful response in defense of Brandeis comes from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union of Reform Judaism, in the Huffington Post. Yoffie acknowledges that Ali Hirsi has a powerful story to tell about her experiences but says her “prejudicial and deeply offensive views on Islam as a violent and fascistic religious tradition” should disqualify her from being honored at Brandeis. The rabbi argues that if any person had made “broadly condemnatory terms about Jews, the Jewish community would be outraged — and rightly so.” While he acknowledges the point made by Lori Lowenthal Marcus that Brandeis has also honored anti-Zionists who shouldn’t have been given honorary degrees, he writes that this is “beside the point now.”

But the problem here is that Rabbi Yoffie takes the smears thrown about by disreputable figures such as Gharib and CAIR as truthful rather than reading them in context. The principal charge against her is an interview she gave in Reason magazine in which she spoke of the need for the West to wage war on and defeat Islam. That sounds like she is attacking all Muslims rather than just the radicals. But her point is that in many contexts, principally in the Third World—something she knows a lot more about than even a distinguished Jewish scholar like Yoffie—the radicals have seized control of mainstream Islam. As she said, “right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.” That analysis of the situation in Iran and her native Somalia—not to mention a host of other Muslim countries—is inarguable.

It is true, as Gharib argues, that Brandeis isn’t silencing Hirsi Ali. No one has a constitutional right to an honorary degree. The problem is that by wrongly tarring her as a hatemonger, what Brandeis’s defenders are doing is to marginalize the issue of the war on women being waged by Islamists.

The issue at stake here goes beyond the vilification of one courageous woman. The refusal of the West to confront the truth about Islamism is the crux of this debate. It may be easy to pretend that Islamists are only a small minority of global Islam in the United States where even radicals like CAIR like to pretend to be liberals. But throughout the world it is increasingly clear that the radicals—“military Islam” as Hirsi Ali calls them—are on the march and have become the voice of mainstream Muslims rather than only a radical fringe.

It is on this dilemma that the fate of hundreds of millions of women hangs. And yet American liberals and feminists feel no compulsion to speak up about this threat. As Hirsi Ali wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal:

I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women’s and girls’ basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight.

The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.

Seen in that context, the shame of this controversy doesn’t belong only to Brandeis and its leadership but to a broad cross-section of Americans who should be on Hirsi Ali’s side in this fight rather than listening to her opponents.

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Re: The Shame of Brandeis

John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

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John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

He describes—with ample evidence and numerous anecdotes—the implication of the 1990s political correctness movement; the rise of campus speech codes; bureaucracies and lack of due process; the transformation of identity politics into a religion and the sacrifice of respect for individual religious choices at the altar of identity politics; the lack of due process in campus judiciaries and their prosecution of ideological crimes; and much, much more. Alas, it’s not just students who suffer: Few professors say they feel free expressing their opinion openly, and administrators who have many opinions but shallow academic background often seek to censor what can be taught so as to insulate students from offense.

Hands down, Unlearning Liberty was the most impressive book I have read in quite some time; that I finished it just two days prior to Brandeis’s decision was an unfortunate coincidence, but one that simply transformed the Brandeis case into the final exclamation point in a far broader problem.

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The Shame of Brandeis

If you have not yet heard, Brandeis University has rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist whose work has focused on the barbaric misogyny rampant in Islamic societies like the one in which she was raised—and whose efforts to call attention to them as a legislator in the Netherlands led to a political crisis there and her eventual flight to the United States. Given that it only takes a Google search to find out everything one would need to know about her, including the controversial aspects of her views, it is laughable for Brandeis President Fred Lawrence to claim he had to withdraw the degree because of information he had only lately discovered. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said this afternoon that she was not surprised she came under attack from demagogic apologists like the Council on American Islamic Relations: She has come to expect such things.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation–lines from interviews taken out of context–designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree. 

What Lawrence has done here is the nothing less than the act of a gutless, spineless, simpering coward.

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If you have not yet heard, Brandeis University has rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist whose work has focused on the barbaric misogyny rampant in Islamic societies like the one in which she was raised—and whose efforts to call attention to them as a legislator in the Netherlands led to a political crisis there and her eventual flight to the United States. Given that it only takes a Google search to find out everything one would need to know about her, including the controversial aspects of her views, it is laughable for Brandeis President Fred Lawrence to claim he had to withdraw the degree because of information he had only lately discovered. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said this afternoon that she was not surprised she came under attack from demagogic apologists like the Council on American Islamic Relations: She has come to expect such things.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation–lines from interviews taken out of context–designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree. 

What Lawrence has done here is the nothing less than the act of a gutless, spineless, simpering coward.

My late uncle, Marver Bernstein, served as the university’s president from 1972 to 1983. I know Marver would have been appalled beyond belief at his shameful successor’s monstrous capitulation to the screaming voices of unreason. As should we all be.

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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.

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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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