Brandeis’ president announced today that he’d rescinded the University’s offer of an honorary degree to Ayan Hirsi Ali. Here is the statement:
Following a discussion today between President Frederick Lawrence and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn as an honorary degree recipient at this year’s commencement. She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. 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.
Commencement is about celebrating and honoring our extraordinary students and their accomplishments, and we are committed to providing an atmosphere that allows our community’s focus to be squarely on our students. In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history, Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.
A little background is in order. I was made aware of the award originally by a faculty member and wrote the post about the story. It took a few days, but finally campus activists began to organize and in the past few days the Brandeis Justice had an editorial rejecting Hirsi Ali’s degree, the Muslim student group wrote an op-ed and there was a roundly negative news article. Students began a petition campaign and faculty weighed in against it. CAIR put the award on its national bulletin circulated to its members and the media.
In the end, Lawrence bowed to the inevitable and withdrew the degree. Not to have done so would’ve risked a huge scandal which would’ve gone national. While I don’t believe that personally Lawrence has any problems with Hirsi Ali’s Islamophobia, nor would the trustees who are the ultimate “deciders,” he had to recognize the rest of the world doesn’t see things quite the same way.
But one portion of the statement is truly pathetic. How can a university president, former law school dean, and noted legal scholar not understand the principle of due diligence? It would take 15 seconds worth of Google search to dig up the interview from Reason Magazine which I found. The truth is that either a pro-Israel trustee or his chief of staff, David Bunis, who’s a director of the David Project, suggested her to Lawrence. The latter knows which side his bread is buttered on and he went along. After all, you’ve got to go along to get along in academia, just like politics. Or to paraphrase Forest Gump, pro-Israel is as pro-Israel does.
Note all, that Lawrence invited Hirsi Ali back to campus. Undoubtedly, they’ll pick the most distinguished academic lecture series on campus and invite her to keynote it. The trustees will throw a big party and fete her. Fred Lawrence will even introduce her just as he did Alan Dershowitz, when he spoke on campus. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Max Blumenthal got the same treatment! The president will talk about Hirsi Ali as a beacon of courage and hope and bulwark against Islamist extremism. He’ll endorse just about her entire world view. If this incident is mentioned, it will be but a brief footnote.
In other words, this is a victory. And I’m proud of whatever small role I and you, my readers played in it. But the battle is by no means over. Islamophobia continues to rear its ugly head at Brandeis and elsewhere. Even if students and faculty disapprove, they don’t call the shots. It’s the trustees who do and they are the emodiments of the Israel Lobby. As I wrote earlier, Lawrence made sure to atttend Aipac’s national conference and the annual Friends of the IDF fundraising gala. He doesn’t do that because it advances Brandeis’ liberal arts reputation. He does it because his trustees want him to.
UPDATE: Ayan Hirsi Ali released a stinging rebuke to Brandeis for withdrawing her honorary degree. It looks like there will be no future speeches on campus for her as I’d suggested above. At least not as long as she’s this mad. In her reply, she falsely notes that the rescinding of her honor is a free speech issue. It’s not. She was offered an honor by the University which it has withdrawn. The offer of a degree is volitional, not something to which she’s automatically entitled as a citizen. She’s free to speak wherever she wishes or is invited. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alan Dershowitz is making such arrangements for her somewhere near campus as I write this.
If Fred Lawrence had been smart, he would’ve offered her such an opportunity on campus in the same conversation in which he withdrew the degree offer. But it appears he didn’t and this is the result. While I have no sympathy either for Hirsi Ali’s views or her stance on this matter, it’s Fred Lawrence and his staff who are most at fault for getting themselves into this thicket in the first place.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.