A sarcastic online comment beneath a recent column described my writing as resembling “Bagdad (sic) Bob-like propaganda,” a reference to Muhammad Said Al Sahhaf (aka Comical Ali), the former Iraqi minister of information whose visage and pronouncements filled American TV screens in the days preceding the American invasion of Iraq.
I don’t mind. It’s my right, should I so choose, to channel “Bagdad (sic) Bob,” and the commenter’s right, should he so choose, to attach his sarcastic note. Those rights didn’t come about because we are endowed with First Amendment rights: They happened because Seacoast Media Group (SMG) allows us space to engage in such dialogue (or propaganda, depending on one’s point of view).
It’s SMG that is protected by the First Amendment. That’s where the right resides.
So when Brandeis University recently, and wisely, rescinded its decision to honor Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree — outraging her supporters and neocons throughout the country, while delighting much of the Brandeis campus, Muslims and many in America’s Jewish community — it wasn’t a free speech issue.
It was an issue of institutional justice and taking back a wrongly decided decision. It had nothing to do with free speech.
Who Ayaan Hirsi Ali is is not a secret, nor is her compelling personal story. A young girl forced to suffer genital mutilation at the age of 5, who fled Somalia to avoid an arranged marriage, through personal death threats culminating with the death of Theo Van Gogh, the director of a documentary, “Submission,” she wrote about abuse of women in Islam while living in Holland.
No one can fail to honor what she has endured, but that is only part of her story. As the Brandeis statement rescinding her invitation read, “For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of” offensive statements she had made. Realizing the truth of who Hirsi Ali really is, Brandeis said, “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” And, I believe, with the core values of most Americans. Most Americans still want to protect the public square where all faiths are welcome, where pluralism and diversity thrive. One question that remains unanswered is how Brandeis failed to do due diligence on her selection. Someone dropped the ball by not noticing the following:
In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s world, “Violence is inherent in Islam — it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder.” In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s intolerant world, all Islam is evil. In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s world, there is no space for pluralism.
In an interview with Reason magazine, Hirsi Ali was asked, “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?” She responded, “No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.”
Reason magazine pushed, “We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, ‘defeat Islam?'” To which Hirsi Ali answered, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”
Such rhetoric and intolerance is unacceptable, especially in an academic environment. In reading Hirsi Ali, all one has to do is replace “Muslim” with Jew or Christian to realize how unacceptable, how un-American, her rhetoric is.
Would we have remained mute if Dartmouth College proposed to honor Iran’s Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with an honorary degree?
Would we have remained mute if the University of New Hampshire proposed to give David Duke an honorary degree?
Of course not, and outrage over those choices would have been justified — and resisted. The First Amendment is about the government limiting speech, not about whom I can or cannot invite or disinvite to my commencement, where students of all faiths will be honored for their achievements. Ahmedinejad and Duke can be invited to speak on campus, and be challenged, but not honored.
Nor is this about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s attacks on Islam. It’s a free country, and people are allowed to hold whatever views they have.
Criticism of religion and religious practice is a long-standing, even if sometimes abused, tradition in America.
I think that when she attacks all of Islam it is hate speech, not a critique, but I equally believe that within our definition of liberty she should speak. Even hate speech is protected. We don’t have to like it or agree with it, and in that spirit Brandeis was right to rescind her honor but equally right to offer, “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.” She should accept. She should allow her views to be scrutinized and challenged within the many fora — political, religious, cultural — available on a university campus and be forced to defend them.
That is within America’s tradition.
By attempting to delegitimize an entire religion, Hirsi Ali is attempting to introduce schism in America where none can be tolerated.
Honorary degrees aren’t generally awarded for what horrors and indignities one has endured, as Hirsi Ali has. The question is whether Hirsi Ali’s hateful rhetoric should be endorsed by an honorary degree.
The answer is clearly no.
It may be that many American immigrants, Muslim and non-Muslims, with world views shaped by decades of imperialism, subjugation and post-colonial adventures like Iraq, do not share many world views with Americans from Iowa or Nevada, and that’s OK. But together Americans are linked by the commonalities of the opportunities and promises of America — in spite of whatever depredation outliers in their communities might commit.
Indeed, the true promise of America was fulfilled on Patriot’s Day when another immigrant from the Horn of Africa, Eritrea-born UCLA graduate Meb Keflezighi, won the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Keflezighi, celebrated as the first American to win the Boston Marathon since 1983, was truly Boston Strong. He was America Strong, Immigrant Strong and the Promise of America Strong.
This is how we triumph over tragedy. This is how we defeat hatred and division.
Note: On Wednesday, April 30, join Howard Altschiller, executive editor of Seacoast Media Group/Portsmouth Herald and me in a conversation about these issues at 7 p.m. at Water Street Books in Exeter. The gathering is free, open to the public and questions will certainly be welcome.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.