When my son, a senior at Brandeis University, forwarded me the news of the controversy surrounding the decision to grant an honorary degree to the controversial feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I took her side. I knew about her. She is a Somalian feminist, a champion of banning genital mutilation of girls, and later a member of the Dutch parliament. She reached fame when Theo Van Gogh, the director of Submission, a film that Hirsi had written criticizing women's treatment in Islam, was killed by a fanatic.
She went too far when she picked on Islam as a particularly violent religion, but as a Muslim-born feminist, I understood her anger. I too have been accused of being Islamophobic when I criticized Islamic views of women. It is easy to become angry after a video clip of a stoning or yet another story of an honor killing. It is easy to hate Islam when your husband threatens to keep you from traveling, or when the waiter tells you to cover your hair better in a restaurant. In Iran, where Sharia, or Islamic, law is imposed by force, women like me "hate" Islam on a daily basis. For Hirsi Ali, coming from the especially violent Somalia, undergoing genital mutilation herself, and witnessing the death of a colleague even in the relative safety of Europe, it must have been horrendous. I can see how her experiences could make her take sides and lose patience.That is why, initially, I supported her receiving an honorary doctorate from Brandeis. When the Muslim Student Association gathered enough signatures from both students and faculty to force a cancellation, I was impressed by the passion of the students, and by their convincing arguments about condoning hate speech. But, still, I had mixed feelings about canceling someone I considered a sister-in-arms against radical Islam. Hirsi Ali is not an Islamophobe. She is not afraid of Islam. She is fed up with it. I am too. As a woman who fled Iran because she did not want to be forced into the hijab or banned from travel by her husband, I understand Hirsi Ali on a deep and visceral level.
Until I read her op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. It is a jaw-dropping piece of polarizing, conservative sophistry not worthy of a university audience. She uses the Boston Marathon bombing. No, let me put it better: She milks the Boston Marathon bombing! I consider myself equally from Boston and from my native Tehran. I have written about how that tragedy angered and saddened me. But to blame the marathon bombing, perpetrated by two young Chechen/Dagestani immigrants, on the religion of so many millions of people struck me as incredibly vulgar and downright dangerous. In the entire op-ed, which Hirsi Ali planned to give as a speech at Brandeis, there is not one mention of the countries where the boys originated. She manages to bring almost all the Arab countries and Afghanistan into the piece about the Boston bombing, but not one mention of Chechnya? What do the rapes in Cairo have to do with the marathon bombing? Or with Islam? Does Ms. Hirsi Ali know that she need not look further than the frat houses of America to find horrible incidents of gang rape? Does she really want us to believe that rape is a peculiarly Islamic evil? Does she not read about the gang rapes in non-Muslim India? She talks about Saddam Hussein and even manages to bring the Syrian civil war into the discussion of the Boston Marathon bombing, but not once does she mention the bombers' name: Tsarnaev. One is forced to ask why. Perhaps their names are not mentioned lest we think about Boston-area college kids who might have just gone crazy on the Internet's web of bad ideas, rather than about a whole civilization with thousands of years of history, culture, art and poetry. You see, if you give them a name, how, then, can you blame the entirety of Islam? How, then, can you build a career on bashing an entire civilization?
I am shocked that Ayaan Hirsi Ali stooped so low as to use the Boston Marathon bombing to win the sentiment of the students who are going to graduate on May 15. She underestimates them. The 6,000 signatures gathered on campus attest to the fact that American college kids are neither bigoted nor naive. They know the distance between Somalia and Dagestan. They don't blame the Boston Marathon bombing on an entire civilization -- the same one, incidentally (and for how long do we need to repeat this fact?) that produced Rumi, Gibran and algebra! These Brandeis University students know that no amount of mentioning of the Holocaust out of context will make it have any connection with Islam. The best gift of a college education, like the one my son was privileged to acquire at Brandeis, is the ability to recognize, free of prejudice or emotion, a bad argument. Those kids that Ms. Hirsi Ali is trying to win over have been taught to mistrust gross generalizations and loose arguments. And they don't share our blinding anger, Ms. Hirsi Ali. That is why they are better than we are!
Hirsi Ali closes her op-ed by claiming that Islam needs to be reformed. I think that is a great idea. But how is she helping the women of Somalia or Iraq from a podium at Brandeis? Let me use the Protestant Reformation as an analogy: Giving this speech to a mostly non-Muslim, American audience, publishing it in The Wall Street Journal, is like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of a mosque in Cairo rather than on the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg!
I have always been a proud Brandeis mom. Thanks to all those signatures, I am now an even prouder Brandeis mom who is looking forward to a commencement worthy of the brilliant class of 2014.