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The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Controversy Is About Double Standards, Not Freedom of Speech

Elisabetta Billa/GETTY IMAGES

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken (this is almost a euphemism) Somali-Dutch opponent of Islam, was recently offered an honorary degree by Brandeis University. The school, which apparently only recently became acquainted with some of her comments about the Islamic faith, decided to revoke the offer of the honorary degree and instead invite her to campus for a dialogue. Hirsi Ali, not surprisingly given the brouhaha, has declined the latter invitation. A predictable debate has ensued about freedom of speech, campus politics, and double standards.

But the real question is why so many people are coming to the defense of a person who has voiced views as misguided as Hirsi Ali's. (Various conservative—and even moderate—outlets have expressed dismay and anger at the decision.) It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a double standard at work—and that making nasty comments about Islam is somehow more acceptable than making them about other faiths. 

The question that arises—or at least a question that arises—concerns the content of Hirsi Ali's more controversial statements. I have spent a good chunk of the day scouring for quotes of hers, and the more extreme ones tend to fit a similar pattern. Here is one that is making its way around the internet:

In 2007, she told Reason Magazine that Islam should be “defeated” and when asked to clarify whether she meant “radical” or “militant” Islam, she made herself very clear. “No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.”

In another quote, she called Islam, "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death." Ali Gharib, at The Forward, has listed a whole lot of things Hirsi Ali has said, ranging from comments on Norwegian murderer Anders Breivik to the need to wage some sort of war against Islam.

I met Hirsi Ali several times, and I read her first book, which detailed her harrowing personal story. She always struck me as thoughtful and interesting and exceedingly polite, which is why many of the comments she has made in the last several years came as such a shock. (“There is no moderate Islam." And: "There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.”) Statements like these are not only harmful to any sort of helpful debate; they are also incredibly thoughtless and, well, dumb. 

However, nothing she has said—or at least nothing that I have found—seems to rise to the level of hate speech. When people become adults they can choose what religion they belong to, which can't be said of, say, skin color. Thus if people do not like the teachings of Judaism or the Catholic Church, they are perfectly within their rights to say so. A lot of diehard atheists have said nasty things about many different religions, and I don't think comments which call various faiths stupid or dangerous or even evil should be considered beyond the pale, or should require that we shun the people who made them from polite society.

But this controversy isn't about shunning someone from polite society. It is about giving a person an honorary degree. I certainly don't think she was deserving of a degree in the first place, so, as Gharib argues, once the university realized its mistake, correcting it was reasonable. The counter argument, which isn't entirely misguided either, would state that colleges should try to set a certain tone about these issues—even if it really isn't a "freedom of speech" issue—and thus letting her get the award (after inviting her) would have been fine too. The world wasn't going to come tumbling down either way, and some of the lessons Hirsi Ali has preached seem valuable. 

Perhaps the fact that I can't get worked up that much either way about her invitation is why I find the double standard from various commentators particularly galling. Imagine this scenario: A Palestinian woman who had been mistreated by Israeli settlers (Hirsi Ali had her genitals mutilated at the age of 5), and who subsequently called Judaism "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death," had her invitation revoked for an honorary degree at a prestigious university. How would American rightwing magazines, from The Weekly Standard to National Review, have reacted? I think we know the answer.

In the case at hand, Bill Kristol has been comparing Hirsi Ali to Tony Kushner, who said that the creation of Israel was a "mistake," among other things, but I haven't seen him take the obvious, non-hypocritical step and write that revoking a Kushner degree would be a grave error. Moreover, calling the creation of Israel a "mistake" isn't quite the same as calling an entire faith a "nihilistic cult of death." Charles Cooke at National Review, meanwhile, compares the lack of a "middle ground" in Hirsi Ali's thought the lack of a middle ground (i.e. political correctness) on university campuses, which seems like a stretch. Still, Cooke's piece is more reasonable, and he is not wrong to wince at one of the reasons the college offered for rescinding the invitation—namely, that Muslim students will feel uncomfortable. Lots of things make people feel uncomfortable, and one senses that this concern is probably higher on the list of college administrations than it should be.

But the strangest response has been from Tablet, which is by no means a right-wing publication, and which has given Hirsi Ali a "Moses Award" and castigated Brandeis for its decision. According to Tablet's editors, the Brandeis revocation is a reminder of "how threatened we’ve all become by a public conversation that permits the expression of nuanced, complicated, even at times offensive ideas—meaning, any ideas at all worth their salt." Right—because Hirsi Ali's quotes above are "nuanced, complicated."

The editors add that, "We recommend that all of our readers buy her books and read her articles, and reach their own opinions about the merits of her arguments." This love letter to "open discourse" falls somewhat flat, especially considering that I have trouble believing Tablet would be recommending the buying of books by authors that made such outrageous comments about Judaism. (Would such opinions about Judaism be "worth their salt?") 

Tablet at least takes a stab at trying to show it is fair by noting that it came to the defense of Palestinian supporter and scholar Rashid Khalidi. But the editorial provides no hint of what would possibly make Khalidi unworthy of being offered a degree, and certainly mentions nothing remotely equivalent to Hirsi Ali's comments about Islam. Even if Tablet would in fact offer a Moses Award to a comparably anti-Judaism figure (Khalidi does not qualify), the editorial calls the Brandeis decision "Soviet style," which might be the most laughable line of the year.

Screaming "hypocrisy" is generally not the best way to make an argument. But in cases such as these, which involve both judgement calls, and (one hopes) somewhat objective standards about what is beyond the pale, hypocrisy really does matter. Brandeis may not have handled this situation smoothly or well, but their ultimate decision was not unreasonable.