The worst strains of European thinking seem to have infected America. As cultural relativism, spinelessness and an inability to stand up for our own values have become more and more dominant in Europe, some of us have continued to look to the U.S. as a society safeguards its founding principles and remains willing to uphold them in the face of opposition. Apparently not for much longer.
There have been troubling developments for some time. But an event earlier this week speaks louder than any so far. This is the decision of Brandeis University to revoke the offer of an honorary degree to the human rights hero, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali addresses the St. Gallen Symposium at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, in May 2011. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/International Students' Committee)
In case anybody needs reminding of her story, two decades ago the Somali-born Hirsi Ali fled an arranged marriage and gained asylum in the Netherlands. She learned the language, worked for a university education and became a member of the Dutch Parliament all in the space of a few short years. But the country she had integrated into had lost its moral compass. As violent and oppressive inroads were made by some segments of its Muslim minority, Hirsi Ali became one of the few to speak out. She knew there was a price for doing so. And sure enough she was vilified and physically threatened. In 2004 she saw her colleague and friend, the film-maker Theo van Gogh, brutally murdered for his part in a film they had made together that highlighted the plight of many Muslim women.
Much of the Dutch and European cultural and political establishments took the lesson of the van Gogh killing: they shut up. They refrained from ever criticizing elements of Islam, and they pretended instead that there was no problem and nothing to see here. Women's rights and the rights of religious and sexual minorities were ignored as the importance of not disturbing Islamic sensitivities took precedence. Worse, the country turned on those like Hirsi Ali who were trying to warn them about the problem. In the process, they made a fundamental mistake, mixing up the firefighter with the fire. And so the Netherlands turned on the few firefighters they still had. Eventually Hirsi Ali was faced with no other choice but to leave. She became, as Salman Rushdie put it, perhaps the first political refugee from Europe to America of the post-war period.
Now, even her recently adopted homeland is letting her down. Brandeis University was planning to award her an honorary degree at a ceremony next month. But now this offer, and the invitation to address students at their May 18th commencement, has been withdrawn. The university's President, Fred Lawrence, has announced that, "We cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier." Lawrence's statement is contemptible. The 'statements' complained of are a few phrases which are critical of Islam. Put the word 'Catholic' in the place of Islam in any of them and you get an average night's comedy on any major television network.
So how did this volte face occur? And at who's instigation? Well there seem to be two forces behind it, one local and one national. The local one consists of a small percentage of faculty members at Brandeis who apparently objected to honouring Hirsi Ali. A public petition opposing the award was also signed by a few thousand people -- on and off campus. A member of the Muslim Student Association, Sarah Fahmy, who set up the petition, described the possibility of the award to Hirsi Ali as "A real slap in the face to Muslim students." Meanwhile Joseph Lumbard, chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, said, "This makes Muslim students feel very uneasy. They feel unwelcome here."
Funny that; what with setting up public petitions, smearing opponents and successfully forcing a university to avoid honouring one of our era's greatest human rights defenders, Ms. Fahmy does not sound at all uneasy to me. Nor does it strike me that she is a person who feels at all unwelcome or in any other way backward at coming forward. In case anyone needs it spelled out, it is not Ms. Fahmy, but Ms. Hirsi Ali who is being made to feel unwelcome. It is someone who has spent her life campaigning for the rights of women and minorities who has been disinvited, not someone who has asserted her "right" to campaign against that hero.
But of course behind all this is something else, at the national level. Because as with so many things that go wrong in these matters in the US, the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR] is behind it. It was CAIR which appears to have led the campaign of outsiders putting pressure on the university, writing to the President of Brandeis and publicly calling on him to rescind the invitation and honour.
So let's remind ourselves of who these moral arbiters are. CAIR is an organization which was an unindicted co-conspirator in the most serious terror-funding trial in recent American history, the Holy Land Foundation trial. It has been affirmed by this and other legal moves at the highest levels that CAIR is the product of an American support network of the designated terror group Hamas. However, wishing us to forget all this, CAIR's "Communications Director," Ibrahim Hooper, led the public campaign to get Brandeis to disinvite Hirsi Ali and said, "It is unconscionable that such a prestigious university would honour someone with such openly hateful views."
So let's get this straight: Unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism trial equals good. Woman who campaigns against religious oppression equals bad.
When Hirsi Ali was being persecuted in the Netherlands, I remember scolding the Dutch public in the Dutch media. I wonder now if I might directly address American readers, not with a scold but with a plea? Please make your views known to Brandeis. Make it be known that Brandeis will not get another penny of funding from anyone who believes in actual human rights. Make it known to Brandeis that Americans, at any rate, can still tell the difference between a firefighter and a pack of arsonists. Make it clear to Brandeis that their actions are beneath the dignity of a university in a free country and beneath the contempt of the American people. A university founded on the concept of liberty is offering up its freedoms at the dictate of fanatics. If that catches on it will not only be Americans who will suffer. Between supporters of terrorism such as CAIR and Hirsi Ali, there should not even be a debate over whom free societies should choose.