The news that Brandeis University cancelled the honorary degree it was planning to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali has raised a storm of controversy. On one side wereMuslims applauding the move as an apt recognition that Ali’s narrative was, if not Islamophobic in itself, fodder for the cannons of the rabid Islamophobic right. On the other were those protesting that the withdrawal represented a betrayal of freedom of speech and a cowardly retreat in face of the howling of religious zealots.
Personally, I think Brandeis should never have thought about awarding Ali with an honorary degree. Not because she is Islamophobic but because her “scholarship” is at best weak, and at worst fraudulent. Ali left Denmark amid huge controversy because she lied about her name, her birthdate, the circumstances in which she left her home country, and her family history, including the fact that she was fleeing an arranged marriage . That alone calls into question her personal testimony about her life and the nature of the Muslim society she grew up in.
More importantly, reading Ali’s description of life in Muslim countries and of Islamic theology, it becomes immediately clear that she paints circumstances with an overly broad, overly polemical brush. For instance, she says things like, “The veil is to show that women are responsible for the sexual self-control of men.” If you’ve read the Qur’an, you know that the Qur’an doesn’t ever directly tell women to cover their heads, and it certainly doesn’t tell men that they have free reign if a woman isn’t wearing a scarf. It does tell both men and women to be modest, and admonishes them against sexual relations outside of marriage, and to treat one another with respect, asallies in the quest to live a moral life.