In 2000, the South African social rights advocate and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at the Brandeis University commencement ceremony. Though a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with numerous other peace prizes, Tutu has also heavily criticized Israel in recent years, making statements that equate Israeli policies with apartheid and Zionism with racism.
In 2006, American playwright Tony Kushner, a 2013 recipient of the National Medal of Arts and, like Tutu, critical of Israeli policies, also spoke before the Brandeis graduates. Kushner is well-known for opposing Israel and his extensively slanderous comments against Zionism. According to the Zionist Organization of America, Kushner has been quoted saying, “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.”
The very foundation of Brandeis University is its Zionist beliefs; it was named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and supporter of the Jews’ right to return to their homeland of Israel. To have honored two different individuals who both outwardly oppose Zionism vilified the values that a large segment of Brandeis students and faculty hold sacred.
Yet early this April, Brandeis rescinded its invitation to have Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak at commencement.
Ali is a politician, writer and women’s rights activist. As a Muslim-born woman who went through genital mutilation in her home country of Somalia, Ali speaks out loudly against the relationship between conservative Islam and abuse toward women. The university originally confirmed Ali as one of the 2014 commencement speakers until a petition, which argued for the withdrawal of Ali as a speaker, circulated the campus and gained over 7,000 signatures. The president of Brandeis University, Frederick Lawrence, announced on April 8 that Ali would no longer be speaking at commencement.
After its initial decision to have Ali as a speaker, Brandeis faced nothing but criticism. Lawrence was condemned for offering Ali a microphone to purport her anti-Islamic values before a large and diverse audience, and he was then later condemned for taking that very power away from her.
Ali has not attempted to hide her vehement disapproval of many of the practices of fundamentalist Islam. Her need for bodyguards and asylum in the U.S. only shows how many enemies she’s gained because of her beliefs. But there is a reason that Ali remains a respected and influential public figurehead, especially for women — she fearlessly writes the truth as she sees it.
In her books, Ali makes the connection between the absence of an Islamic reformation and some of its continued, as she says, “destructive” practices.
Ali notes the past reformations of Christianity and Judaism and hopes the same for Islam so that women don’t have to continue to suffer.
The parallels between Tutu and Kushner’s ideas and those of Ali are clear. All three actively disparage beliefs held with high importance by members of a certain religion. The entire point of a university is to allow for rhetoric that doesn’t always satisfy the majority opinion; the two anti-Israel speakers at Brandeis raised ideas that went against the tide, and Ali would have done the same. To censor her is to create the very narrow-mindedness that a university is supposed to prevent.
On April 10, The Wall Street Journal published the speech that Ali would have given. Ali wrote, “The motto of Brandeis University is ‘Truth even unto its innermost parts.’ That is my motto too. For it is only through truth, unsparing truth, that your generation can hope to do better than mine in the struggle for peace, freedom and equality of the sexes.”