As a Brandeis graduate student, a female convert to Islam, and the co-director of a nationally recognized center for inter-religious cooperation, I have followed closely the recent controversy involving Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brandeis University as it grew from an internal campus conversation to a national news story. Here are a few of my takeaways from the incident.
Brandeis has built its institutional success on a commitment to educational excellence and social justice. It is this compelling mission that draws students, faculty, and staff from around the world to this outstanding community—it is what drew me here. The University has top-notch Islamic and Middle East studies courses, whose professors are among this nation’s best in their fields. I have never experienced any anti-Muslim bias or any attempt to gloss over substantive political and social issues. Quite the contrary—honest intellectual inquiry about Islam and Muslims thrives at Brandeis, and students I know are applying their knowledge in such diverse locations as Morocco, Jerusalem, Kazakhstan, and New York City.
A Harmful Lack of Nuance
In contrast, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has publicly spoken and written in an unnuanced manner, vilifying Islam and Muslims en masse. In fact, her characterizations are at times so misguided that many scholars and bloggers, including Nathan Lean, have convincingly argued that Ali is not an advocate for Muslim women, and that her rhetoric should not be regarded as critique but as extremism. I sympathize with Ali’s personal experiences of pain and suffering, and I agree that we must address issues of fanaticism and misogyny in Muslim societies and other religious and cultural contexts. However, I cannot accept her gross overgeneralizations. As a feminist scholar of Islam with a decade of experience working in America’s robust and diverse Muslim communities, I find her sweeping characterizations and rhetoric misguided.
We human beings revel in stories of triumph. We enjoy lifting people up who have transcended their lot in life. But, in our quest to find heroines, we must be cautious not to glorify individuals who have climbed a ladder of success whose rungs are wrought with bitterness and antagonism. To be clear, Ayaan Hirsi Ali points to some substantive issues in need of redress, but she is part of a circle of political actors who cultivate sensationalized narratives and stereotypes of the religious and ethnic “other” that tear at the fabric of civil society. Hence, even when she points to legitimate instances of anti-Semitism or gender injustices, her “clash of civilizations” approach—epitomized in the last few paragraphs of her response to Brandeis in The Wall Street Journal—fosters an ethos of fear, mistrust, and confrontation, an ethos that may actually further ostracize the very communities her foundation seeks to aid.
For example, the AHA Foundation Brochure lists the “acceptance of Sharia law in Western legal systems” as a “terrible reality” alongside honor violence, honor killings, forced marriages, and female genital mutilation. This deliberate misrepresentation of Sharia is part of a political campaign of misinformation, which scholarly initiatives such as Islawmix, launched at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, have gone to great lengths to debunk. This is to say, the claim that Islam, qua religion, promotes the grotesque acts of violence named above is sensationalist and inaccurate.
As someone who has substantial training and publishing history in the fields of Islamic legal studies and women’s studies, I could point Ali to abundant principles, rulings, and resources from within Islamic legal scholarship that counter familial violence, such as this essay by Azizah al-Hibri, legal scholar and founder of the educational and advocacy organization Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, or the work of Amina Wadud, a woman who has spent decades asking difficult questions and raising controversial issues related to Islam. In particular, the rhetoric about Western actors saving Muslim girls that is laced throughout Ali’s publications and public remarks needs to be unpacked in a critical manner. By contrast, a more thoughtful, rigorous approach is exemplified by Shenila Khoja-Mooji in her recent article in Gender and Education, which reflects on the nuances of human rights education for Pakistani girls.
The AHA Foundation produces intervention and training materials for law enforcement and lobbies policymakers and politicians. Yes, some of this work is commendable. However, as someone who is also working on issues of violence against women, I know that social policy organizations should strive to be transparent about their collaborators and advisors, must be informed by solid research paradigms that consider the issues at stake with breadth and depth, and need to be bolstered by coordinated efforts that address issues holistically, not merely from a top-down law enforcement approach. These may be high standards for organizational excellence, but misinformed social policy compounds problems instead of fixing them.
Again, there is value and potential to be found within Ali’s work, but Ali’s foundation should have more connection to grassroots initiatives and more grounding in the research that analyzes social and economic risk factors for familial violence. Based on an assessment of its web presence, the AHA Foundation seems to be missing these key elements of good social policy advocacy. For instance, who is on the Foundation’s advisory board? This should be made clear. The research cited in the AHA Foundation briefs is thin, as epitomized by this one entitled “Facts and figures on the circumstances affecting Muslim girls and women in the United States.” Likewise, charges against “traditionally conservative religion” and “conservative religious families” in the foundation’s law enforcement training curriculum are unhelpful.
I believe Ali has much to share from her life experiences, and I respect her passion and composure; she has some commendable humanitarian goals. I could envision myself or others in my line of research collaborating with her to strengthen and hone some of her outreach. Nonetheless, at present her foundation’s materials and a few of her public remarks belie a harmful lack of nuance.
Critics have made the charge that disinviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali is akin to the suppression of free speech. I am skeptical of this proposition, since the university has extended an invitation to Ali to speak at a future forum on the rights of women and girls.
Civic freedoms come hand in hand with responsibilities. When we criticize any belief system (which is a necessary, democratic endeavor indeed), we have a responsibility to do so with a trained eye and a piercing vision of the greater good, searching for the best possible social outcomes. We must criticize like skilled surgeons working to heal social ills with a precise and thoughtful touch. As this article at The Economist points out, American civil discourse and mores do not, in general, condone the promotion of extreme prejudice by public intellectuals. This is a good thing; our democracy is only as strong as our discernment.
Rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to Ali was a necessary and responsible action, even if it has generated public controversy. I commend President Frederick Lawrence and other Brandeis leaders for listening carefully to the many voices of protest that rose up against this decision and for considering the matter carefully. I also salute Brandeis for its efforts to address historic biases by including women and non-Caucasians among this year’s honorary degree recipients; it was an important step toward addressing structural biases that plague higher education. But, as someone who is also being awarded a degree from Brandeis this May, I think that the university should have a better internal vetting process for deciding who will share the stage with its graduates. I am not holding my breath for an explanation from the university of how the initial decision to honor Ali occurred, but I do hope that in the future, faculty are consulted regarding such decisions.
Similarly, I am not holding my breath for a quick remedy to the deficit of knowledge about Islam and Muslims in the wider American public sphere. However, I have hope that the educational resources at the public’s disposal are broadening, as exemplified by the most recent State Department publication on American Muslims. This episode must be an impetus to look, once again, at the political networks that facilitate and finance anti-Muslim bias and anti-Semitism, for the two are often mutually reinforcing. Who supports such agendas, and why do they do so? How can we work together to counter the targeted degradation of categories of people? And how can we create inter-religious and cross-cultural alliances that build bridges instead of constructing walls?
As a Muslim at Brandeis, I have been overwhelmed by an outpouring of support from many corners of the Jewish community. I even received an urgent call from a close rabbinic colleague who, upon hearing the news of the controversy, was motivated (at 7:00 a.m., mind you!) to see how I was doing and to ask how he might be of help. I received many more phone calls, letters, and emails like this from across the country. Outpourings of support were fast and effective.
Muslims who are invested in inter-religious and civic partnerships can take heart, and should continue to reciprocate as mutual partners with allies in our path toward unbinding the chains of bigotry and striving to love and respect all people, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio is a doctoral candidate in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations at Brandeis University and will be receiving a joint master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis in May. She lectures and publishes widely in the fields of feminist and Islamic studies and has earned previous degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University. She is currently the Islamic Studies Scholar-in-Residence at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School where she co-directs the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education. She is a Faculty Associate at Merrimack College's Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations.