Are commencement addresses where ‘free speech’ ends?

Another year, another college commencement controversy. This time, however, it’s not at Swarthmore. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights advocate and critic of Islam’s treatment of women, was disinvited from speaking and receiving an honorary degree at Brandeis’ commencement this spring. You have likely already heard about the controversy and have a staunch opinion, but I want you to consider why you may be wrong.

Ali has been a harsh critic of Islam, going as far as saying Islam needs to be “destroyed,” arguing that we are at war with the entire religion, and claiming that Islam is a “death cult.” She has said Islam is “not compatible with the modern Westernised way of living.”

While I may find these statements objectionable, I still disagree with Brandeis University’s decision to disinvite Ali.

First, Ali has been a forceful advocate for women’s rights in the Islamic world. Speaking out against female genital mutilation and “honor killings,” Ali has raised awareness around these important issues. She founded the AHA Foundation to increase recognition of these issues in the United States and around the world. “Honor killings” have happened in this country, and thanks to Ali the practice is more widely known about.

Second, her radical claims need to be understood in the context of her personal experiences. Ali was forced to undergo the terrible genital mutilation procedure as a girl under her grandmother’s care, making the personal and the political collide. This personal experience cannot be denied, nor should it. While experiences cannot be used to justify claims as truth by any means, Ali provides one perspective that has every right to be heard. Also, numerous Western feminists (although not liberal feminists, the largest group) have claimed Islam and feminism are incompatible. Such a position is radical, but not unheard of.

Third, the justification for disinviting Ali smacks of hypocrisy. According to a statement provided by the university announcing the decision, the university president decided that Brandeis “cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” The idea that giving Ali an honorary degree for her work would somehow violate “Brandeis values” is preposterous considering past recipients.

David Bernstein makes an important point in the Washington Post about Brandeis inviting Tony Kushner to receive an honorary degree. Despite saying “the biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community,” Kushner still received his honorary degree despite backlash. In fact, the University’s president at the time defended the decision to invite Kushner by arguing that “the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.” A double standard indeed.

Furthering the hypocrisy, while not a religious university, Brandeis has been an important Jewish academic institution. For Kushner to be invited and receive an honorary degree would seem more problematic, yet the University went through with its decision. We too often forget about the quotas placed on Jewish students at colleges and universities, including here at Swarthmore, where the quotas for Jews was once limited to 5 percent. Brandeis was founded in part to celebrate Jewish culture, and had no quotas for any group.  If we use the rhetoric of “Brandeis values,” then Kushner’s invitation would seem to be a serious violation.

While these reasons should suffice, one additional problem cannot be ignored: silencing voices just because one disagrees with them. It’s true — college commencements are tricky affairs. Bestowing an honorary degree on an individual provides colleges and universities with an interesting commencement speaker and brings attention to the school. But with accomplished individuals, there is always the possibility of controversy erupting due to past public statements. However, disinviting someone for views they hold, particularly if they are very personal, sends the wrong message about an academic institution’s commitment to free speech.

I will add one caveat — there are certain public statements or actions that should disqualify a person from receiving an honorary degree. These statements or actions would have to be so egregious that no college or university would consider the person to begin with. Or, the statements or actions the institution finds objectionable would have to take place in between the invitation and the actual event. Otherwise, institutions should prioritize free speech and emphasize the reasons the person was invited in the beginning.

In this case, none of these suggestions were followed by the Brandeis administration. The University claimed to have not known about Ali’s past objectionable statements once controversy erupted. The statements brought up by Brandeis students and the administration have been made over a long period by Ali, dating back to her time in the Netherlands. Instead of following a rational approach, the university choose to cave to pressure and disinvite Ali, going as far as to erroneously suggest that the university president and Ali reached a mutual agreement.

Brandeis tried to salvage the situation by inviting Ali to “campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.” “Engage” is the important word here. Rather than having Ali speak at commencement where civility is expected, in the alternative format the students could protest her visit in the open. This was hardly a serious invitation, and more of a cop-out so Brandeis would not look as though it was throwing free speech under the bus.

Many of you likely do not accept these arguments against Brandeis’ decision to revoke Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary. Some may even say that free speech has no place on college campuses, particularly at commencement. But there is another side to every story. Another opinion with legitimacy. That is what this column has been about for the past four years — telling the side you may not hear otherwise. Two weeks from now I will sign off from this quest (well, in the Phoenix at least). Please be sure to read.

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