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Brandeis University withdraws planned honorary degree for Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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This 2007 photo shows 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. Brandeis University announced Tuesday it was withdrawing a planned honorary degree from Ali. (AP Photo/Shiho Fukada)

Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced Tuesday that it had withdrawn the planned awarding of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a staunch critic of Islam and its treatment of women, after protests from students and faculty. 

The university said in a statement posted online that the decision had been made after a discussion between Ali and university President Frederick Lawrence. 

"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, 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."

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 has not commented publicly on the issue of the honorary degree. 

In 2007, Ali helped establish the AHA Foundation, which works to protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture, according to its website. The foundation also strives to protect basic rights and freedoms of women and girls. This includes control of their own bodies, access to an education and the ability to work outside the home and control their own income, the website says.

More than 85 of about 350 faculty members at Brandeis signed a letter asking for Ali to be removed from 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."

Bernard Macy, a 1979 Brandeis graduate, sent an email this week to university President Frederick Lawrence and several members of the faculty saying, "Thank you for recognizing Ayaan Hirsi Ali for defending Muslim women against Islamist honor violence."

But 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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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