Opinion: Brandeis betrays its educational mission

In this Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 photo, Ayaan

In this Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 photo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer of the film "Submission," which criticized the treatment of women in traditional Islam and led to the murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, talks to a reporter in New York. Brandeis University in Massachusetts is taking heat from some of its own about plans to give an honorary degree to Ali, who has made comments critical of Islam. (Credit: AP)

In 1949, Wayne State University president David Henry blocked Herbert Phillips, a well-known philosophy professor, from speaking on campus. The reason: Phillips was a Communist. "I cannot believe that the university is under any obligation in the name of education, to give him an audience," Henry said.

I thought of the episode when I learned about Brandeis University's recent decision to withdraw its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali following criticism from students, faculty and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Citing Ali's controversial remarks about Islam, Brandeis said the comments were "inconsistent" with its "core values."

But a core value of a university is -- or should be -- open dialogue and discussion. And Brandeis -- not Ali -- violated it, just as universities did by keeping out left-leaning speakers during the McCarthy era.


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A native of Somalia who fled a forced marriage, Ali eventually moved to Holland and was subsequently elected to parliament. She also wrote the screenplay for a 2004 film about the treatment of Muslim women, which earned her death threats that prompted her to move to the United States.

And in a 2007 interview, Ali called Islam "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death." Later that year, she said "there is no moderate Islam" and that it must be "defeated."

Over the top? Definitely. Offensive? I think so. But Ali's comments hardly put her in the same category as Nazis or white supremacists, as several critics have recently charged. Unlike fascist ideologues, who stressed the second-class status of women and their duty to reproduce for the fatherland, Ali has fought for independence and equality for women.

She also has been at the center of an ongoing debate about whether Muslims have enhanced or curbed women's rights. These are legitimate issues, and academia should address them.

Instead, we're more likely to quash them. Part of the problem is the liberal political orientation of university professors. That makes it hard to include perspectives from people like Ali, who don't fit neatly into the categories we've created for ourselves. She's a feminist, obviously, but she has also made anti-Islamic remarks. Is she one of us, or not? Even worse, we tend to demonize people who disagree with us. The very worst aspect of American political culture is the assumption that your opponents are either stupid or evil. The university used to be a bulwark against that kind of thinking. But lately, I fear, we've fallen into it ourselves.

Nobody ever admits that out loud; instead, liberals simply say certain views are too offensive to merit a hearing. But that's precisely what red-baiters said about Communists and their sympathizers during the Cold War. And it's also what conservative Catholics said in 2009, when Notre Dame tapped President Barack Obama as its graduation speaker.

More than 300,000 people signed a petition urging the university to revoke its invitation to Obama, a long-standing supporter of abortion rights. In hosting the president, the petition said, the institution was "betraying its Catholic mission."

But turning away Obama would have betrayed the university's academic mission: to promote dialogue and understanding across our myriad differences. Fortunately, Notre Dame held firm, and Obama gave his address. Some dissenting graduates protested his abortion views by affixing pictures of baby feet to their mortar boards.

Ali won't have the opportunity to address Brandeis graduates next month. More to the point, students won't have the chance to challenge and engage her. That's a core value of the university, and also of a liberal society. Too bad Brandeis -- and its avowedly liberal defenders -- seem to have forgotten it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His most recent book is "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."

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