It is difficult to conceive of a braver woman alive today than Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Born in Somalia, she was subjected to genital mutilation—a practice commonly inflicted on young girls in Muslim communities—at the age of 5. Fleeing a forced marriage, Hirsi Ali eventually made her way to the Netherlands, where she became a member of parliament, defender of women’s rights, and an outspoken (and, at times, unduly harsh) critic of the religion in whose name she was violently subjugated. When a Muslim fanatic murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, with whom Hirsi Ali had collaborated on a short film about the oppression of women under Islam, the killer left a note on his victim’s chest warning Hirsi Ali that she would be next.
Hirsi Ali now lives in America, under 24-hour protection. She is a bestselling author, a frequent presence in international media, and a heroic example to women around the world.
But for the mandarins of Brandeis University, Hirsi Ali’s views are unacceptable.
On Tuesday, Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence announced the school had withdrawn an honorary doctorate that it had planned to confer upon Hirsi Ali. “We cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” he wrote, without bothering to mention which statements were too upsetting for his students to hear.
Unsurprisingly, it was Hirsi Ali’s former co-religionists who raised a stink about her. Upon the announcement that the school would honor Hirsi Ali, Brandeis’s Muslim Students Association announced on its Facebook page that she was guilty of “hate speech.” Like clockwork, an op-ed in the Brandeis student newspaper by two leaders of the organization accused her of “Islamophobia,” a catch-all term employed to smear any criticism of Islam as akin to racism, without regard for the fact that the former is a freely chosen belief system while the latter is an innate trait. Refusing to engage her arguments about Islam on the merits, the Brandeis students dismissed her views as purely the result of personal experience. They acknowledged that Hirsi Ali had undergone “terrible things in her life,” the likes of which they could never imagine, their idea of a rough time being “minorities at a predominately white, Jewish university, [where] many of us feel isolated and unwelcomed.”
Well, they certainly can’t complain about that any more. “We will not tolerate an attack at our faith,” the MSA declared, in a thinly veiled ultimatum to the school (a tip for Muslim students angry at alleged Muslim stereotypes: Stop acting like Muslim stereotypes). The MSA persuaded the school to rescind its honor (so much for the all-powerful, right-wing “Jewish Lobby,” which can’t even get its way at Brandeis). Lawrence, sounding like a re-education camp functionary, maintained that Hirsi Ali was still welcome at Brandeis, where, presumably, she could be lectured to by aggrieved Muslims and their left-wing sympathizers. “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history,” Lawrence patronized, in a line that must have Louis Brandeis rolling over in his grave, “Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”
To be sure, Hirsi Ali has no constitutional right to receive an honorary degree, and she will continue to speak out on the issues that animate her activism. Brandeis’ shameful and cowardly behavior violates no law. But its actions nonetheless speak to a troubling trend within academia and Western societies at large: the tendency of self-proclaimed victim groups to stigmatize those who espouse viewpoints they don’t like and shut down debate altogether when it gets too hot. It may not be a death threat, but forcing a university to rescind its honoring of an acclaimed critic of Islam exists on a censorious continuum that ends with the dismal fate of individuals like Theo van Gogh.
Ali is but the latest victim of a newfangled version of the “no platform” phenomenon. Initiated by British anti-racist groups in the 1970s to dissuade mainstream figures from debating fascists, “no platform” started out as an attempt to avoid the conferral of respectability upon the far right, not to abridge their freedom of speech. The aim was to send a message about the illegitimacy of certain anti-democratic political movements by refusing to engage with them. Writing in the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum explains that the tactic “was traditionally about rejecting the rhetoric of violence—especially when that rhetoric was liable to inspire leagues of smash-happy skinheads.”
Today, “no platform” has gone from being a consensual means of expressing disapproval to an all-out assault intended to castigate and muzzle unpopular opinions. A growing, ecumenical constituency composed of the religiously devout, perpetually outraged Twitter activists, and eager-to-please university administrators operate under the belief that there exists a “right” not to be offended. When their bullying tactics to silence opponents doesn’t work, the no-platformers shout down their ideological adversaries, which is what would have happened to Hirsi Ali had she been allowed to participate in Brandeis’ commencement ceremony. One sees this silencing impulse in everything from Twitter busybody Suey Park (who launched the “#cancelcolbert” campaign over a joke she was either too stupid, or too cynical, to understand), to gay activists who say that opponents of marriage equality, like former Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich, should lose their jobs.
A year ago this very month, Hirsi Ali became an American citizen, fulfilling a dream that was borne inside of her when she first started learning about this country’s freedoms and values. In a moving essay about her path to becoming an American, which her detractors who call her a bigot would do well to read, she wrote that “There should be no discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or faith.” Like many immigrants before her, Ayaan Hirsi Ali understands the principles upon which this country was founded better than many native-born Americans.