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Brandeis won’t give honorary degree to Islam critic

Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Shiho Fukada/Associated Press/file 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent advocate for women’s rights and an outspoken critic of Islam, denounced Brandeis University Wednesday for abruptly withdrawing its offer of an honorary degree, accusing the school of stifling free speech.

The Waltham university announced late Tuesday that it would not honor the Somali-born activist at its graduation ceremonies next month, voicing concern about her inflammatory statements, including that “violence is inherent in Islam.”

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In a sharply worded response, Hirsi Ali assailed Brandeis officials Wednesday, saying they had bowed to critics who “simply wanted me to be silenced.”

“What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming,” she said in a statement. “Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles.”

Facing public pressure on campus and beyond, Brandeis said late Tuesday it had rescinded its offer to Hirsi Ali, a week after announcing she would receive an honorary degree.

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“We respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” the university said in a statement. “That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

The college invited her to speak at another time.

But Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Belfer Center for the Future of Diplomacy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said that Brandeis had spent months planning for her to speak at commencement and that it was “scarcely credible” they were unaware of her public record.

I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin,” she said.

The controversy, the latest in a long tradition of campus disputes over the suitability of graduation speakers and honorees, drew strong reactions on both sides. Critics of Hirsi Ali praised the university’s decision; others said it was a surrender to political correctness.

“Brandeis has violated the university’s fundamental commitment to academic freedom and responsibility,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education group dedicated to academic freedom. “Disinviting a controversial figure for fear of student backlash and upset sensitivities sends a perverse message that a college education must never dare offend.”

Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch Parliament who has spoken out against female genital mutilation and honor killings, is known as a defender of women’s rights in Islamic societies.

She has come under criticism for remarks about Islam. In a 2007 interview with Reason magazine, Hirsi Ali was quoted as saying “there is no moderate Islam” and that Islam needed to be defeated.

“Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful,” she said. “It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.”

That same year, she told the London Evening Standard that Islam is “the new fascism.”

She also characterized Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” she was quoted as saying, “It legitimates murder.”

Her selection by Brandeis sparked an outcry by students, faculty, and national advocacy groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We believe offering such an award to a promoter of religious prejudice such as Ali is equivalent to promoting the work of white supremacists and anti-Semites,” the group stated.

An online petition signed by students and other critics condemned Hirsi Ali’s “extreme Islamophobic beliefs.”

Hirsi Ali said she was completely shocked when Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence told her the university was rescinding its offer, just a few hours before making the decision public. She rejected the university’s invitation to discuss such issues on campus, saying she did not wish to participate in “one-sided dialogue.”

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.
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