The controversy over Brandeis University’s decision to withdraw its honorary degree invitation to Somali-born American activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is puzzling. Not because it wasn’t the right decision — it was — but because of two specific ways that the school, major media organizations, and Hirsi Ali’s supporters and detractors described her.
That’s a lukewarm description for someone who has expressed her support for defeating Islam (not extremists, but the entire faith) by military means if necessary. Let’s be clear: Such measures do not constitute “criticism.” Instead, they are dangerously close to advocating genocide.
Similarly, it is not “criticism” to promote the idea that the 2010 massacre carried out by the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik, was a result of his supposed censorship. That is dangerously close to justifying an act terrorism that killed 77 and injured more than 300 others.
It is fine to be a critic of Islam or any religion. But Hirsi Ali crosses a line. Suggesting that her views are simply unfavorable normalizes extremism. It also dilutes genuine critiques by lumping them into one vague category that contains calls for military action against Muslims and reasoned negative appraisals alike. And, it legitimizes the idea that reasoned criticism of Islam is enough to warrant the denial of a public platform.
Brandeis University’s statement described Hirsi Ali as an “advocate for women’s rights.” Others described her in the same way, including the New York Times and USA Today. While there’s no doubt that Hirsi Ali has shed enormous light on cruel practices that target some Muslim women (including female genital mutilation, of which she was a victim), it feels cheap to hail her as a champion in that regard.
It is unclear how Hirsi Ali can be an advocate for Muslim women while simultaneously calling for the outright defeat of their faith. Her tragic experiences seem to have provoked within her an animus for Islam that she believes all women who suffer like she did must share. In her attempt to “save” them from these practices (which are mostly cultural, not religious), Hirsi Ali denies them the right to interpret their religion differently — to believe in the goodness of their faith and also bemoan its severe interpretations. Instead she insists that their “nihilistic cult of death” is the real culprit.
Hirsi Ali’s activism — some of it admittedly positive — is marred by the presumption that her experiences give her the authority to speak for other women who have also suffered, using their examples to bolster and advance her beliefs about the world.
But that is not so.
Speaking for Muslim women (or any group) is not the same thing as advocating on their behalf.
It is not difficult to see how Hirsi Ali’s extreme views contribute to negative public perceptions of Islam in the United States and Europe, the results of which fuel violence towards veiled Muslim women — a group more likely than men to suffer from attacks or assaults. It should never be the case that advocates of human rights undermine the rights of any group with their “criticisms.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is neither a “critic of Islam” nor a true advocate of women’s rights.
This piece originally appeared at the Huffington Post.