A Conservative Defense of Brandeis University

No, Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not have her speech "suppressed."


My neoconservative comrades are furious at Brandeis University for rescinding its honorary degree invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

John Podhoretz, in Commentary, called the decision by Brandeis's president, Fred Lawrence, "nothing less than the act of a gutless, spineless, simpering coward," and a "monstrous capitulation to the screaming voices of unreason."

William Kristol, in The Weekly Standard, called it "shameful" and wrote that absent a satisfactory explanation, Brandeis donors "shouldn't support an institution that's displayed such pathetic cowardice and moral bankruptcy."

The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Brandeis's decision demonstrated that the Waltham, Massachusetts-based institution's core values "now include intolerance and the illiberal suppression of ideas."

I'm hoping my friends on the right apply their enthusiasm for tolerance and the free expression of ideas to a respectful dissent from me on this particular one.

In the case of Hirsi Ali and Brandeis, the "suppression" argument doesn't really apply. Brandeis's statement disinviting her as an honorary degree recipient said, "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."

Ramaz, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Manhattan, rescinded a speaking invitation to Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi earlier this year without a peep of protest from us neoconservatives about intolerance or suppression of ideas.

No, the key issue here isn't whether ideas are being suppressed, but whether Hirsi Ali's ideas are worth the quasi-endorsement of an honorary degree. This calls not simply for tolerating all sorts of ideas, but for exercising some judgment, for discriminating between good ideas and bad ones.

Here Hirsi Ali has been, at least by the standard of the star public intellectual she is, a bit cagey as to what her ideas actually are.

She claims she has been misrepresented. "My critics have long specialized in selective quotation—lines from interviews taken out of context—designed to misrepresent me and my work," she said in her initial statement responding to Brandeis.

In an interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News, Hirsi Ali said, "they take lines from various interviews. I mean, the magazine was in 2007 and then they tie all these things together to fit their own narrative."

The reference was to a 2007 interview with Reason magazine in which Hirsi Alsi spoke of her atheism and called for Islam—not "radical Islam," but "Islam, period" to be "defeated," "in all forms."

While Hirsi Ali is claiming to be misrepresented by her critics, however, she is at the same time going ahead making similar arguments to the ones she made back in 2007. On April 10, 2014, The Wall Street Journal published, under the headline, "Here's What I Would Have Said at Brandeis," what it described as an abridged version of remarks she planned to deliver. "The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored," she wrote. Not radical Islam, not fundamentalist Islam, not Islamism, but simply Islam, a religion whose faithful adherents include some hundreds of millions of women.

"Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation," she wrote.

What are non-reformed Christians, such as Catholics or adherents to the Greek Orthodox church, supposed to make of that? Or unreformed Jews, such as those of us who are of the Orthodox or Conservative varieties? It's not as if Islam is the only violent religion. Humility recommends mentioning that even we Jews have had, within living memory, Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, though, significantly, their deeds have been widely condemned by Jewish religious leaders rather than being celebrated. Nor is violence confined to religion; the atheistic Communists of the 20th Century Soviet Union and China surpassed, for sheer body count, anything the Muslims have perpetrated.

Hirsi Ali may make her mission fomenting a Muslim reformation as an avowed atheist operating from her perches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the American Enterprise Institute while simultaneously issuing a blanket condemnation of the Islamic faith. Stranger projects have succeeded, though I don't exactly see how adding an honorary doctorate from Brandeis to Hirsi Ali's list of credentials would advance the odds of accomplishing her goal.

But when Brandeis decides it's not in its institutional interest to throw its prestige behind that particular endeavor, particularly on a commencement day where Muslim students will be graduating, it seems to me that what's called for from the imams of neoconservatism, praised be their names, is a little less outrage and a little more understanding.