The recent controversy over Brandeis University’s withdrawal of its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali is symptomatic of the disconnect from reality prevalent in academia. Let’s look at Hirsi Ali’s “virulently anti-Muslim public statements” quoted by the Brandeis faculty members who signed a letter to the university president, urging him to rescind the offer:
David Cohen quotes Ms. Hirsi Ali as saying: “Violence is inherent in Islam – it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder. The police may foil plots and freeze bank accounts in the short term, but the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it’s not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself….Islam is the new fascism” (London Evening Standard, 2-7-07). Rogier van Bakel quotes her as follows: “Jews should be proselytizing about a God that you can quarrel with. Catholics should be proselytizing about a God who is love….Those are lovely concepts of God. They can’t compare to the fire-breathing Allah who inspires jihadism and totalitarianism.” Van Bakel notes religions’ ability to bring about change for good: “Do you think Islam could bring about similar social and political changes?” Ms. Hirsi Ali responds, “Only if Islam is defeated.” Van Bakel asks, “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?” To that she responds, “No. Islam, period.” (Reason, 11-07)
These are the statements which caused 87 faculty members to be “filled with shame,” because, in part, they “cannot accept Ms. Hirsi Ali’s triumphalist narrative of western civilization, rooted in a core belief of the cultural backwardness of non-western peoples.”
They are entitled to their opinion that the “non-western peoples” that mutilated Ms. Hirsi Ali and murder women for the crime of being rape victims are not culturally backward, but I think she is certainly as well and probably more qualified to make this judgment than the Brandeis faculty.
It is hard for me to see why her position should fill them with shame to the point that they won’t allow their university to honor a woman who has quite literally put her life on the line to end these practices!
I was unable to find an argument worth discussing in the faculty letter, so I turned to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism. Here is why he believes that “Brandeis got it right:”
Ms. Hirsi Ali’s sweeping statements of condemnation do not make vital distinctions that civilized people must always make. I am referring to the distinctions between radical and fanatic versions of Islam and moderate and centrist versions of Islam. As we Jews know very well, there are real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements.
If any major American university were to award an honorary degree to a political or cultural figure who had spoken in such broadly condemnatory terms about Jews, the Jewish community would be outraged — and rightly so. The task of American Jews and all Americans is to join with our Muslim friends in the fight against religious fanaticism in Islam and in all other religious traditions; it is to promote the values of justice, love, and moderation that are common to all the major religious faiths. But we cannot do that if we insist on honoring those who, however sympathetic their backgrounds and moving their personal stories, have made the mistake of demonizing all Muslims and bashing Islam.
Rabbi Yoffie himself fails to make a critical distinction, that between an ideology and a population. Hirsi Ali criticizes Islam, with which she has intimate knowledge, as an ideology, one which has elements that are pro-violence, intolerant, anti-democratic, misogynist, anti-Jewish and more. She believes that these elements are inherent in Islam, that they are an essential part of it. Hence she “bashes” Islam.
But she does not “demonize all Muslims.” This is an entirely different thing, and one that Hirsi Ali is careful to avoid. I am sure she would agree with Yoffie that there are radical and moderate Muslims; but in her analysis, a moderate Muslim is one that, for whatever reason, does not act out the more offensive parts of the Islamic ideology.
Criticism of ideologies, even vituperative criticism, has been part and parcel of legitimate discourse in the West since the Enlightenment. I’m sure that many members of the Brandeis faculty curse capitalism every morning before breakfast, and nobody is “filled by shame” by this. Half of the world’s Internet sites would go dark and there would be no more political speeches if one couldn’t criticize ideology.
To shut down critical discussion of an ideology by trying to assassinate the character (and in the case of Ms. Hirsi Ali, the person) of the critic, simply because the ideology is a religious one, is unreasonable.
Yoffie’s comparison to criticism of Judaism is instructive. He conflates Jew-hatred — the ‘racial’ form practiced by the Nazis, the religion-based version of the Spanish Inquisition, or the conspiratorial type preached by Frazier Glenn Cross (or Miller), which are clearly unacceptable, with ideological objections, which are not.
For example, there are misogynist and intolerant threads in Haredi Judaism which I oppose, as I oppose the universalist themes and conflation of Jewish ethics with leftist politics that appear in Reform Judaism. Public expression of this criticism does not make a me a bigot who hates Haredim or Reform Jews, or even wishes them ill.
There is a difference between Judaism and Islam, which is that the pernicious parts of the ideology that are found in Islam form an essential part of it, and one which at the present time is becoming more and more prevalent in the normative practice of Islam. One could say that more and more Muslims are becoming ‘radicalized’, or as I prefer, beginning to act according to Islamic ideology.
Normative Judaism, in which the understanding of the texts has undergone a process of moderation through the rabbinical tradition, strongly negates the idea that violent episodes (e.g., genocide in the book of Joshua) should be a guide to behavior today — precisely the opposite of what is happening in Islam with the spread of Islamist doctrine.
Muslim organizations like CAIR are trying to make it unacceptable to voice any “criticism of religion,” which they equate to a form of bigotry. But disagreement, no matter how vehement, with an ideology is worlds apart from hating its adherents.