Somalia-born feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali has every right to criticize Islam, the faith into which she was born. But this right should not be confused with an entitlement to receive an honorary degree. Brandeis University, a nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college, recently rescinded its invitation to honor her after understandable complaints by Muslim students who were offended by her blanket condemnation of their faith. Hirsi Ali is justified in feeling whipsawed by the university, which should have looked into her more extreme statements before now. But it made the right call in the end.
There is little doubt that Hirsi Ali has experienced the worst that religious fundamentalism has to offer: female genital mutilation, abuse in an arranged marriage, and death threats. After she wrote the script to a screenplay that portrayed the suffering of women in Islamic societies, an assassin killed the film’s producer and stabbed a note through his corpse threatening her life. These experiences, along with her eloquence and her status as a former Dutch parliamentarian, place her among the most compelling critics of Islam alive today. She argues that Islam, as practiced today, is inherently violent and that the Koran should be amended to comport with modern values. She has the right to make this argument, and has done so forcefully, declaring that Islam needs to be “defeated” before it “can mutate into something peaceful.”
While Hirsi Ali is rightly celebrated for her work investigating the religiously justified abuses of women and girls, the university should have known that she is far more famous for her unstinting critique of Islam as a religion. Indeed, Hirsi Ali expressed surprise at the university’s decision to honor her in the first place. It would have been far better to invite her to campus to participate in a debate about the future of political Islam than to receive an honorary degree.