Brandeis University committed an honor killing this week. The victim was a Somali woman named Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Honor killings are depressingly common in the Middle East: punishment for women guilty of being raped, losing their virginity outside of marriage, adultery, dressing provocatively or simply embarrassing a male relative. These murders – most of which go unreported and unprosecuted – are usually acid-in-the-face, blood-on-the-floor affairs meant not only to salvage the good name of the dishonored family but to intimidate other women (and gay men) into abiding by the prevailing code of behavior.
Ms. Hirsi Ali is an internationally famous crusader against the practice of honor killings and other acts of aggression visited upon Muslim women by their menfolk.
She comes by her passion honestly. At the age of 5 she was subjected to ritual genital mutilation by her family. As a young woman she rebelled against a traditional forced marriage and fled to the Netherlands, where she received political asylum.
As a girl, Hirsi Ali wore a hijab, abided by Shariah law and even supported the death threat issued by Iranian clerics against renegade Muslim author Salman Rushdie.
In Amsterdam, she fell in love with Western values, which she came to embrace as universally applicable.
She enrolled at a local university, became an avowed atheist and, in 2003, just 11 years after her arrival in her new country, she was elected to the Dutch parliament.
Along with Theo Van Gogh, a descendant of painter Vincent Van Gogh, Hirsi Ali made “Submission,” a cinematic protest against the brutal treatment in the Middle East of women who do not submit to their role as second-class human beings.
In the wake of 9/11, she issued warnings about the violent nature of armed political Islam. Her point was made for her by a fanatic who, in the name of Allah, stabbed Van Gogh to death on an Amsterdam street.
The murderer pinned a letter to Van Gogh’s body: a death threat against Hirsi Ali, who was forced into hiding and lived under government protection until she settled in the United States in 2007.
Hirsi Ali’s story is a heroic one, and her persona – Third World woman of color, secular humanist, ardent feminist, defender of gay rights and a near martyr to her liberal Western principles – certainly resonated with the awards committee of a proudly progressive university like Brandeis. She was almost the perfect candidate for an honorary degree.
But there was one small problem. She had dared to criticize Islam and Muslim behavior in the same way other religions and other human behaviors get criticized in an open society. In America you can’t get killed for this (yet), but you can be dealt with.
Enter Nihad Awad, the national head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He launched a letter of protest at Brandeis president Fredrick Lawrence, accusing Hirsi Ali of wrong thoughts and evil words. Giving her an award, he wrote, would be like “promoting the work of white supremacists and anti-Semites.”
That was rich. Awad has publicly supported Hamas (which is anti-Semitic) and Hezbollah, the terrorist arm of the Teheran Holocaust deniers. Not only that: He actually accused Ali of threatening the entire Muslim world with violence. The demand to rescind the award was backed by almost a quarter of the Brandeis faculty.
Faced with this absurd and offensive inversion of reality, President Lawrence informed Hirsi Ali that she was no longer welcome at commencement. He blamed this on “certain of her past statements,” which he said were inconsistent with the university’s “core values.” He had the audacity to invite Hirsi Ali to visit the school someday for a discussion “in the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University through its history.”
Presumably, Nihad Awad will get a chance to go over her remarks before she appears on campus.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves her degree for precisely the reason Nihad Awad doesn’t want her to have it – because she dares to speak her mind and say things that offend the sort of people CAIR represents.
The Brandeis commencement this year is conferring an honorary degree on Jill Abramson, the gifted and outspoken editor of The New York Times. Hopefully she won’t let the occasion pass without reminding her hosts of who is absent from the podium: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman whose reputation is the victim of an honor killing, Brandeis-style.