Another spring, another college commencement speaker contoversy.
In 1990, students at Wellesley College objected to First Lady Barbara Bush, who they felt was not sufficiently feminist as she had dropped out of Smith College in 1944 to get married.
In 2006, Muslim students at Nova Southeastern University in Florida objected to author Salman Rushdie because they found parts of his novel "The Satanic Verses" offensive — never mind that he had been tormented for almost a decade by an edict from the religious leader of Iran calling for his execution.
In 2009, it was Notre Dame University that was unsuccessfully pressured to disinvite President Obama because of his stand on abortion and stem cell research.
This year, we have the unfortunate example of a university choosing not stand for freedom of expression, critical thinking and robust debate and instead folding under pressure.
Good going, Brandeis University. You're setting a terrific example.
The "offending" speaker was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 44, a feminist and outspoken critic of Islam who is affiliated with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
After an outcry spearheaded by Muslim students unwilling to share their moment with someone whose views they consider offensive, Ali was disinvited to the May 18 ceremony.
"She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights," the university said in a statement on its website. "And we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier."
In an interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News, Hirsi Ali said her statements were readily available to anyone with access to Google. She said found the university's excuse "feeble."
Hard to disagree. If you know even the most cursory thing about Hirsi Ali, you know that the woman has been dogged by controversy and violence her entire life. And if you didn't, a two-second search would reveal she is loathed by many peace-loving Muslims for her incendiary rhetoric. Does Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence not have an Internet connection?
Born a Muslim in Somalia, where she was forced by her grandmother to undergo genital mutilation at age 5, Hirsi Ali grew up in Kenya, renounced Islam, and sought political asylum in the Netherlands, where she became a member of parliament. She was later at the center of a scandal because she lied on her asylum application, and soon decamped to the United States, a country more amenable to her message.
As my colleague Bob Drogin wrote in a mixed review of her 2010 memoir "Nomad":
"Intolerance in the defense of freedom is a hard sell …. Other books may examine why Muslim suicide bombers mostly kill other Muslims, or the history of the Sunni-Shia split, or how the fire-and-brimstone Islam of Saudi Arabia differs from that in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation. But you'll find none of that here.
"Fired with the zeal of a convert, Hirsi Ali insists Islam and the West are locked in 'a clash of civilizations,' the rallying cry of the Fox News Channel's vox populi. The 'dysfunctional Muslim family constitutes a real threat to the very fabric of Western life,' she warns. The 'Muslim mind,' she declares, is 'in the grip of jihad.'"
Still, Hirsi Ali asks hard, and important, questions about the proliferation of violence in the name of Islam, as well as the treatment of girls and women in Muslim countries. Her dire perspective is rooted in her own experience.
For example, after writing the screenplay for the 2004 film "Submission," about the mistreatment of Muslim women and girls, she received death threats. The threats were not hollow; the film's director, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated by a Muslim extremist. Pinned to his jacket after the attack was a threat on Hirsi Ali's life, after which, like Rushdie, she lived under police protection.
In an online petition, Brandeis senior Sarah Fahmy wrote that Hirsi Ali's invitation to speak at the school and receive an honorary social justice degree was a "shock to the community due to her extreme Islamophobic beliefs."
Fahmy said that Hirsi Ali's selection represented a "blatant and callous disregard" not just of Muslim students "but any student who has experienced pure hate speech" and represented a "direct violation" of the school's moral code, as well as "the rights" of Brandeis students.
The rights to what? To live your life shouting down anyone with whom you disagree? Spare us from this lesson, please.
You may think that what Hirsi Ali says is odious, and much of it is: "Violence is inherent in Islam — it's a destructive, nihilistic cult of death," she told the London Evening Standard in 2007. "It legitimates murder …. Islam is the new fascism." Or, as she told Reason the same year, "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."
But why shut her up?
Wednesday, on Fox, Hirsi Ali acknowledged that her presence on university campuses was "offensive," "maybe insulting" and "controversial." But, she added, "I thought that's exactly what universities are there for. We send our kids to school so they can be confronted with ideas that they are not comfortable with."
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published the commencement speech she would have given. It is provocative, without a doubt:
"I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women's and girls' basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight .… The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect ....
"One of the best places to do that is in our institutions of higher learning. We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged. I'm used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen."
Why couldn't Brandeis have done what Columbia University President Lee Bollinger did in September 2007, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak on campus? In interviews, statements and even his introduction, Bollinger spelled out the offensive positions that the Iranian leader had taken on issues like the Holocaust, his call for the destruction of the state of Israel and his treatment of women. And then he let Ahmadinejad speak.
As always, the answer to offensive speech is more speech, not censorship.
Brandeis could have avoided an embarassing episode by following Columbia's lead.
Silencing those with whom we disagree does nothing to further our understanding of the world.
I actually learned that at college in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement, a long time ago.