Brandeis University was set to honor activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree until protests from students and faculty came into play.
Ali, a staunch critic of Islam and its treatment of women, has been labeled Islamaphobic by her critics.
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 has been quite vocal with her critics of Islam. In 2007, she said, “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’s own history with the religion has shaped her beliefs. She was raised in a Muslim family, endured genital mutilation, an abusive arranged marriage, which led her to renounce her faith when she was in her 30s.
Ali’s AHA Foundation has worked diligently to protect and defend the rights of women in those countries who oppress them but justify it because of religion and culture. 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.
Faculty members at Brandeis spearheaded the efforts to have Ali removed from the honorary degree list. Out of the 350 faculty, more than 85 back Ali’s removal. An online petition created by students garnered more than 5,800 signatures by 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.”
Ali has not made any comments about not receiving the honorary degree.