I was at Brandeis University, watching my boyfriend graduate from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. He was receiving his Master’s of Public Policy, and I and his family were extremely proud to see him, a first generation Mexican of parents without any high school education, join the ranks of his peers, African royalty and upper-class Jewish legacies.
Yet the occasion tasted sour in my mouth. Instead, the Dean had thrown together a sloppy and pandering speech about “micro-affirmations.” Essentially, whenever you see a person of color, tell them how wonderful they are. Or something. It was nonsensical and totally unrelated to Heller’s educational purpose. The motto of Brandeis is “knowledge advancing social justice.” The Dean’s speech was in reference to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali was supposed to be the commencement speaker for Heller and Brandeis as a whole, as well as receive an honorary degree. But she was not. A Muslim student had taken offense to Ali’s past critiques of Islam and decided that she was “Islamophobic.”
Let us be clear. Islamophobia, the prejudice and discrimination against people of actual or perceived Islamic and Arab descent is a reality for many people in the United States. In the context of a post-9/11 country that won’t allow Muslims to build a Mosque near ground zero, broad generalizations of the attitudes and behaviors of all Muslims is an ugly bias that we must face.
However, Ali does not critique Muslims. She critiques Islam. Though of course she and many others may condemn the actions of specific Muslims, they are the actions done in the name of Islam. Critiquing a belief system and critiquing the holder of that belief system are two entirely separate issues, and one must not be conflated for the other.
I am a liberal. I heavily critique conservative-supported policies. That does not make me a conservative-phobe. I am perfectly able of being friends with conservatives while also thinking their worldviews are full of shit.
And let us be clear about something else. Ali is not talking about Islam practiced by middle-class Muslims in Lansing, Michigan. She is talking about Islam practiced by many Muslims in the Arab world, where clitorectomies, forced marriages, legal rape, concealment, barring from education and independence, stonings, beatings, be-headings, etc. run rampant. She grew up in Somalia, a country that has not had a functioning federal government since 1991. And Ali is a woman who has suffered and witnessed most of these atrocities. She is a fierce advocate for women’s rights in the Muslim world, and though you may not agree with her aggressive words, it is undeniable that they are validated by her experiences.
The irony of the whole debacle is that knowledge advancing social justice is exactly what Ali is doing. We have this knowledge that Allah, the god of the Koran, does not exist. It is not a subject of empirical debate or legitimate philosophical musings. Allah does not exist, full stop. The monstrous logical fallacies and contradictions within the text that claims to be the word of Allah leave no other option. And how should we best use that knowledge? By advancing social justice for women, liberating them from the barbarian misogyny that plagues their lives.
And yet, Brandeis, instead of challenging religious patriarchy, has instead decided to give in to the “feelings” of first-world Muslims that have no more right to speak on the lived experiences of women under sharia law than do I. And by giving into thought policing, they have stalled social justice.
Brandeis can extend, and retract, honorary degrees to whomever they want. But if we continue interpreting religious freedom as freedom from critiquing religion, then universities like Brandeis will fail to uphold the very values they exalt, and the United States will be silenced from speaking out against religious evils.