The knockout of Ali

April 17, 2014

What do we make of the incident of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of Islam whose invitation to receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University was revoked following protests? The school’s actions drew howls of protest from The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and others on the right and generated discomfort from just about everyone else.

The Somali-born Ali is a complex person, with views on some issues with which the vast majority of the Western world agrees and views on other issues that are more divisive. Ali has been a forceful proponent for women’s rights and an opponent of the genital mutilation practiced on girls in some Muslim countries. But she has also been unyielding in her condemnation of Islam, the religion she was born into and later abandoned. Thus, she told Reason magazine in 2007 that Muslims are “not interested in peace” and went on to say, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”

It is her harsh, uncompromising condemnation of all streams of Islam that makes people uncomfortable. Even Daniel Pipes, a hardline critic of radical Islam who defended Ali last week, was not steadfast enough for her. Reason asked Ali if Pipes was wrong in his contention that “radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution.” “He’s wrong,” Ali answered. “Sorry about that.”

Much of the blame for the Brandeis pivot is directed at Brandeis itself, which apparently didn’t do much analysis or inquiry to determine whether Ali might become the lightning rod she has turned out to be. Brandeis reportedly reneged on its promised honor after 85 of its 350 faculty members wrote a letter in protest. And an online petition created by Brandeis students collected thousands of signatures from inside and outside the school, all critical of the planned honor. So it appears that Brandeis relented under pressure. That may have been the right decision, but it didn’t have to play out as it did.

Such events seem to be happening with greater regularity, and they are beginning to have a sameness to them. A scheduled speaker, performance or honoree is deemed to be offensive in some way by a group of vocal, well-intentioned and well-organized critics. Because of the orchestrated uproar, the sponsoring organization cancels the event or modifies it. Meanwhile, those in the middle, who belong to no extreme, have the event agenda hijacked by more vocal ideologues. As a result, an event that would otherwise have passed largely without comment becomes a place for rhetorical sparring, accusations and disputes. Public discourse and civility suffer.

While it may be difficult to predict every complaint or uproar which particular planning decisions may evoke, there is no question that more careful vetting of programs and activities by event sponsors would go a long way toward avoiding such divisive disputes.

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