When I graduated from Brandeis in 1972, where I majored in philosophy, I immediately knew that I owed Brandeis a great debt. And so, over the past 2 decades I have been, at times, an adjunct lecturer at the Brandeis International Business School, served on the Board of the Business School, and the Board of the University itself. With gratitude I have contributed significant sums to my alma mater, including a Chair in Financial Markets and Institutions to the Business School.
It was at Brandeis that I was introduced to the pre-Socratic philosophers and was fascinated with how they struggled to find ways to explain the world around them, and how their ideas influenced Plato, Aristotle and others who succeeded them. It was at Brandeis that I was introduced to the thought of Immanuel Kant, and the other giants of western thought, as well as the thought of other cultures. It was at Brandeis that I came to understand that in intellectual dialogue all ideas are on the table, that everyone is entitled to his point of view and that public scrutiny of ideas is the best way to assess their worth. It was at Brandeis that I was taught how controversy served as an impetus to critical thinking, and that it is often the very people who are condemned for expressing ideas, like Spinoza and Galileo, who are later considered the great minds of western thought. And it was this foundation that I relied upon when I next studied philosophy and politics at Oxford University and then law at the University of Chicago.
I must now confess to having serious concerns about the spirit of free inquiry at my alma mater when it rescinds an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who champions women's rights in the Muslim world. A woman honored in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. A woman who received the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee and was voted Woman of the Year for 2006 by the European editors of Readers Digest magazine.
And I thought it regrettable that upon learning that Hirsi Ali was offered an honorary degree 87 Brandeis faculty members were so “filled with shame” that they presented President Lawrence with a letter urging him to “rescind immediately the invitation to Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali for an honorary doctorate” based on her "virulently anti-Muslim public statements."
These faculty members said that "the selection of Ms. Hirsi Ali further suggests to the public that violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus". And they also could not "accept Ms. Hirsi Ali's triumphalist narrative of western civilization, rooted in a core belief of the cultural backwardness of non-western peoples."
For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that some of her comments may be provocative and controversial. But that is what intellectual inquiry is all about. For decades serious scholars have examined in all major religions the use of force, the role of violence and compulsion, male dominance over women, the role of honor killings, etc. Since when have these topics become off limits to scholars?
It is hard for me to imagine that these faculty members seriously think that violence against women on the Brandeis campus is in any way comparable to the violence against young women in a single Nigerian village. When was the last time a Brandeis student was sold into slavery?
What is worthy of note is that Hirsi Ali's views do not come from an ivory tower but from the concrete reality of her personal experiences as a woman. She was genitally mutilated as a child, fled a forced marriage at age 12 and lives under constant threat of death by the very people who proudly wear the ideology she condemns. Who are we to judge that her conclusions are beyond the pale? Surely we would not condemn a Christian or Jew at the time of the bloody Crusades who said similar things about Christianity. When Tony Kushner said that the very creation of Israel itself was a mistake, this did not disqualify him from receiving an honorary degree from Brandeis University.
And how preposterous is their issue with her Western triumphalism, especially when she fled to the West from the very ideology that is trying to kill her. Is not the belief in American exceptionalism triumphalist in nature? Just last September President Obama himself celebrated the idea of American exceptionalism before the UN General Assembly. Would this disqualify him for an honorary degree?
I am profoundly perplexed that there is no counter letter submitted by any faculty member to President Lawrence. Is there not a single woman faculty member in the Women and Gender Studies Program who can find the compassion to defend her? Is the majority of the faculty too intimidated to speak out against this new tyranny for fear of being ostracized?
The only acceptable response to bona fide controversy is robust dialogue. It now appears that Brandeis’ motto of 'truth unto its innermost parts' has been replaced by the eleventh commandment of political correctness – “Thou shalt not offend.”
Martin J. Gross
Member of the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University