BOSTON – After taking heat from some of its own over a decision to grant an honorary degree to an advocate for Muslim women who has made comments critical of Islam, Brandeis University withdrew the planned honor Tuesday night.
The university said in a statement that Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali would no longer receive the honor at the May 18 commencement.
Ali, a member of the Dutch Parliament from 2003 to 2006, has been quoted as making comments critical of Islam. That includes a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine in which she said of the religion, "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. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there's no middle ground in wars."
Brandeis, outside Boston in Waltham, Mass., said it was not aware of Ali's statements earlier.
"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," said the university's statement. "That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."
Ali was raised in a strict Muslim family, but after surviving a civil war, genital mutilation, beatings and an arranged marriage, she renounced the faith in her 30s. She declined to comment this week to The Associated Press.
More than 85 of about 350 faculty members at Brandeis signed a letter asking for Ali to be booted off the list of honorary degree recipients. And an online petition created Monday by students at the school of 5,800 had gathered thousands of signatures from inside and outside the university as of Tuesday afternoon.
"This is a real slap in the face to Muslim students," said senior Sarah Fahmy, a member of the Muslim Student Association who created the petition said before the university withdrew the honor.
"But it's not just the Muslim community that is upset but students and faculty of all religious beliefs," she said. "A university that prides itself on social justice and equality should not hold up someone who is an outright Islamophobic."
Thomas Doherty, chairman of American studies, refused to sign the faculty letter. He said it would have been great for the university to honor "such a courageous fighter for human freedom and women's rights, who has put her life at risk for those values."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim advocacy group, said, "It is unconscionable that such a prestigious university would honor someone with such openly hateful views."
The organization sent a letter to university President Frederick Lawrence on Tuesday requesting that it drop plans to honor Ali.
"This makes Muslim students feel very uneasy," Joseph Lumbard, chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, said in an interview. "They feel unwelcome here."