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Brandeis withdraws honor for Ayaan Hirsi Ali

University says Somali-born author, who has been critical of Islam, would no longer receive honorary degree

Brandeis University on Tuesday canceled its plan to award Somali-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree after campus criticism of the selection of an advocate for Muslim women who has made comments critical of Islam.

The university said in a statement that Hirsi Ali would no longer receive the honor at the May 18 commencement. The university had offered her, and four other people, the honor eight days ago.

Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch Parliament from 2003 to 2006, has been quoted as making comments critical of Islam. That includes a 2007 interview with Reason magazine in which she said of the religion, "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. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there's no middle ground in wars."

Brandeis, outside Boston in Waltham, Mass., said it had not been aware of Hirsi Ali's statements earlier. 

"She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world," said the university's statement. "That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."

The university, founded in 1948, describes itself as "the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the country" and is named for the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

The Justice, Brandeis’ student newspaper, on Tuesday described Hirsi Ali as "a Somali-born women’s rights activist who has campaigned against female genital mutilation but is also well known for her critical view of Islam; she has at various times called Islam a 'backwards religion' and a 'destructive, nihilistic cult of death' that legitimizes murder."

A visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Hirsi Ali was raised in a strict Muslim family, but after surviving a civil war, genital mutilation, beatings and escaping an arranged marriage by immigrating to the Netherlands in 1992, she renounced the faith in her 30s.

According to her AEI biography, while in the Dutch parliament "she worked on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and defending the rights of women in Dutch Muslim society. In 2004, together with director Theo van Gogh, she made 'Submission,' a film about the oppression of women in conservative Islamic cultures. The airing of the film on Dutch television resulted in the assassination of Mr. van Gogh by an Islamic extremist." 

More than 85 of about 350 faculty members at Brandeis signed a letter asking for Hirsi Ali to be removed from the list of honorary degree recipients, according to The Associated Press. 

An online petition created Monday by students at the school of 5,800 had gathered thousands of signatures from inside and outside the university as of Tuesday afternoon.

"This is a real slap in the face to Muslim students," said senior Sarah Fahmy, a member of the Muslim Student Association who created the petition before the university withdrew the honor.

"But it's not just the Muslim community that is upset but students and faculty of all religious beliefs," she said. "A university that prides itself on social justice and equality should not hold up someone who is an outright Islamophobic."

Thomas Doherty, chairman of American studies, refused to sign the faculty letter. He said it would have been good for the university to honor "such a courageous fighter for human freedom and women's rights, who has put her life at risk for those values."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim advocacy group, said, "It is unconscionable that such a prestigious university would honor someone with such openly hateful views."

The organization sent a letter to university President Frederick Lawrence on Tuesday requesting that it drop plans to honor Hirsi Ali.

"This makes Muslim students feel very uneasy," Joseph Lumbard, chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, said in an interview. "They feel unwelcome here."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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