Has Everyone Without an Honorary Degree From Brandeis Been Censored?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (cc photo: Rocco Ancora)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (cc photo: Rocco Ancora)

In a USA Today op-ed (4/16/14), Fox News liberal Kirsten Powers weighs in on Brandeis University’s decision to rescind its offer to honor the anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali during commencement activities. 

Under the headline “Liberals Attack Female Fighting Misogyny,” Powers accuses Brandeis of caving to pressure from liberals, and dismissing Hirsi Ali’s experience as a victim of cultural misogyny:

But this life experience is no match for the “expertise” of liberal Westerners who seem to believe the problem is that Hirsi Ali just doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.

But the point is not that Hirsi Ali is a feminist campaigner against misogyny; it’s that she’s an Islamophobe. She subordinates a good cause to what is essentially a campaign against Islam, which she calls “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” (London Evening Standard, 2/7/07).

She told Reason magazine (11/07) that Islam must be “defeated” by any means, including militarily. “There comes a moment when you crush your enemy,” Hirsi Ali told the magazine. Asked if she meant specifically “radical Islam,” she responded: “No. Islam, period.” 

So much for the free-speech rights of Muslims.

Kirsten Powers

Kirsten Powers

Powers joins a chorus of conservatives crying foul over the Brandeis reversal. The Wall Street Journal editors (4/9/14) accused Brandeis of “intolerance and the illiberal suppression of ideas.” Fox News host Megyn Kelly (e.g., 4/9/14) devoted repeated segments to the theme that activists groups opposed to Hirsi Ali’s bigotry were out to silence her. On FoxNews.com (4/10/14), Zev Chafets argued that Hirsi Ali wasn’t just subjected to censorship, she was the victim of an “honor killing, Brandeis-style.”

For giving in to Hirsi Ali’s critics,  Commentary editor John Podhoretz (4/9/14) called Brandeis president Fredrick Lawrence a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.” Mona Charen at National Review Online (4/11/14) likewise accused the university of “cowardice” in trying to silence Hirsi Ali. After all, Charen argued awkwardly, it had previously chosen to confer honorary degrees “on Harry Belafonte (1991), Andrew Young (1978), and Desmond Tutu,” who were all–wait for it–“known for intemperate comments.” 

Powers is not the only liberal to criticize the Brandeis decision. Huffington Post writer Jason Linkins (4/10/14) scolded those who would applaud:  “Whether they know it or not, the actions they have taken have done way more harm than good. To anyone with a liberal-minded attitude toward freedom of expression, Brandeis’ decision has done you no favors.”

Linkins seems to understand that there is a difference between silencing a person and not celebrating them with an honorary degree, but he nevertheless repeatedly raises the free-speech canard:

Now, the ripple effect of that decision will have its unintended impact, and the people who are satisfied today that she won’t be speaking at Brandeis will get to enjoy the tables being turned on them at some point down the road. And who knows how many of us non-agitants will get caught up in this turf war?

Linkins cites the fact that Brandeis previously honored playwright Tony Kushner, whose critical views of Israel–he has criticized it for ethnic cleansing and said its creation was “a mistake”–drew much criticism. He worries that the Hirsi Ali precedent will put a stop to honorees like Kushner. But there is a great deal of space between Kushner’s provocative, controversial views, which can be debated, and Hirsi Ali’s religiocidal position, which calls for the silencing or worse of more than a billion Muslims. Surely there are boundaries beyond which Linkins would not extend university honors.

Brandeis’ decision has nothing to do with free speech. In its announcement that it was withdrawing the offer to honor Hirsi Ali, it invited her back to the school to speak in another setting. If being denied an honorary degree is an infringement of free speech, then Brandeis is “silencing” billions of people every year.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.