On the disinvitation of Ayan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis

I wrote this comment in response to a posting by Don Ellis on his blog, about the dis-invitation of Ayan Hirsi Ali to speak at Brandeis’ graduation, and present it here with nearly no editing.

I have assigned her book in an introductory Islam course, and then did not in large part because of reasoning similar to something Klein HaLevi said in an opinion piece written together with Abdullah Antepli that has been widely circulated, supporting the disinvitation , Although not the comment that is so widely quoted: Her approach to Islam is her own and not broadly representative of mainstream approaches to Islam by people born into Islam. Of course, that is why her opinions matter! 

What’s more, although there are a lot of Muslim-Jewish interactions, the collaboration of Klein Halevi and Antepli can be seen by some as not so very indicative of the broad mainstream either, and certainly reflect the realities in some segments of Israel and the USA, but rejected in many other areas.

My own reactions to the dis-invitation issue were shaped in part by dis-invitations and a presidential caving to various interests on my university campus. Klein Halevi and Antepli were right about the dis-invitation being a learning experience: I am not sure this is anything at all what he met, but the learning experience should be that Brandeis has the resources to properly vet any speaker they plan for commencement. Once having made a decision to invite her, the Brandeis administration should have been able to stand by this choice. The learning experience: don’t invite someone you will have to dis-invite, and stick by your choice or look foolish.

I am also wary of CAIR, Council for American Islamic Relations, which protested vociferously–but after all, that is what they do: protest any speaker seen as negative to Islam. With all due respect, this is something like some Jewish responses to anyone perceived as being even slightly anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. The situation at Brandeis suggests that they are much more powerful than the “Zionist lobby” that they might object to, which could not get speakers dis-invited.

HIrsi Ali is an important voice, and many of her controversial opinions about Islam are voiced by Muslims as well–many Muslims emphasize readiness for death over life, or the subservience of women or of women’s honor, and other things to which she objects–and do so saying that these are Islamic teachings.

The saddest thing about this is that there are strong Muslim voices who criticize the same things Hirsi Ali has criticized, and argue strongly for Human Rights in terms recognizable to the international community–but they are often also marginalized as well. Hirsi Ali has been more effective in her work.

I think the dis-invitation has created a great deal of interesting discussion.

But Brandeis should have vetted the speaker well enough to be able to stand up to and argue effectively against any campaign by CAIR, or not invited her in the first place. The dis-invitation has robbed Brandeis graduates of an historic opportunity to interact with a unique and important writer, thinker and activist.


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