- My examination of two cases at Brandeis University
Originally published at The Justice
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The decisions by Brandeis University to suspend its partnership with Al-Quds University and cancel an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali both represent illiberal views that cast aside important work because of controversial statements and actions.
As Justice Louis Brandeis noted in Gilbert v. Minnesota, “In frank expression of conflicting opinion lies the greatest promise of wisdom.” Brandeis would be wiser today had a more open debate about both these actions been conducted. My own experience lecturing at Al-QudsUniversity may serve to illustrate why.
Over the last three years I have taught Palestinian students about U.S. Constitutional law, culture and the American impact on globalization. I have stressed the concepts of unfettered freedom of expression and the importance of the separation of church and state. These are not normative values in the Middle East, but many students are truly inspired to read the words of Thomas Jefferson or the debates of the U.S. Supreme Court in cases relating to sedition and offensive actions, such as the decision to permit neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Ala. in 1977.
On Nov. 5, 2013 I was supposed to be on campus at Al-Quds. Weather led to the cancellation of my “Events in US History” class. Later, photos emerged of an Islamic Jihad rally on campus that day that featured men with plastic weapons “waving flags and raising the traditional Nazi salute,” according to a statement by BrandeisNOW. Although the group has a very small campus presence, President Fred Lawrence demanded a condemnation of the rally by the university administration, and when that was not forthcoming, the partnership between the two universities that dates back to 2003 was suspended.
The irony of suspending the partnership was that traditionally those most supportive of work with Brandeis at Al-Quds have been the Palestinian faculty on the liberal end of the political spectrum who stress the need for coexistence.They have sought to create an open-minded environment on campus. This includes fostering open debate, critical thinking, discussing democracy, free speech and civil rights. My students were shocked to learn that a small rally to which none of them had any connection resulted in their being punished by an American university named after a foremost supporter of free speech.
Brandeis’ hasty decision to suspend the partnership with Al-Quds was symbolically problematic. It sent the message that because of the actions of the few students who participated in the rally, or the timidity of a campus administration to confront those offensive actions, the entire University is tainted. If the desire is to encourage students to stand up against rallies by Islamic Jihad, or admonish administrators for not preventing them, how does suspending a partnership that exposes students and faculty to American forms of critique help? By demanding condemnation Brandeis put Al-Qudsadministrators in the position of having to accept the dictates of a foreign university. A better decision would have been to use the rally as a way to encourage more dialogue and student exchange, and to show solidarity with Palestinian students who do not support extremism. Rather than shutting down avenues for exchange, it should have been a catalyst to redouble efforts, explain why these rallies are offensive and to discuss why militarism receives so much support among Palestinians.
Similar to the decision to suspend work with a progressive university because of the offensive actions of some students, the decision to cancel an honorary degree for Hirsi Ali stems from a mistaken litmus test. Brandeis argued that “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” These cherry-picked statements included that Islam is “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death”; that “Mohammed’s example is terrible” and that religion “is not compatible with the modern Westernised way of life.” Her view of organized religion and generalizations are timid compared to many other Western intellectuals. Writer Emile Zolaargued that “civilization will not attain its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins called God of the Old Testament, “vindictive, bloodthirsty, racist, infanticidal.” Mathematician Blaise Pascal claimed “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.” Voltaire thought Christianity “the most absurd and bloody religion” while Leo Tolstoy felt it brought “atrocity, stupidity and cruelty.” Mark Twain believed religion has made a “graveyard of the globe.” Under the current Brandeis policy, few Enlightenment era intellectuals, or even Socrates, who was condemned to death for “offending religion,” would be eligible for an honorary degree. Had Hirsi Ali said that “Jesus’ example is terrible” or “Christianity is a cult of death,” would that really be considered “hate” or“Christianophobia?”
How did an indigenous, Muslim-born Somali woman speaking out about her own experiences of vicious oppression at the hands of religion in Saudi Arabia, who, like Salman Rushdie, has been the subject of death threats for her views, be considered the one whose views are unacceptable? Previous generations would have looked to her as a role model, like we did former slave Fredrick Douglass who, like Hirsi Ali, faced injustice during his youth which led him to “hate the corrupt, slave holding, women-whipping, cradle plundering and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” Is that also now offensive hate speech? A nuanced reading of her life story would encourage less blanket judgement of her, while at the same time we could condemn her unidimensional portrayals of Islam in some statements.
A recent cartoon in The New Yorker notes “have you figured how to be on the right side of history without being on the wrong side of now?” Brandeis’ decisions in the Al-Quds and Hirsi Ali cases are on the right side of now; they cater to those who shout “offended” and they meekly throw out the baby with the bathwater to avoid being associated with controversy. The University should have stood with my students and with Hirsi Ali. At the very least it would be good to get to know both of them. Expose Brandeis to the life story of Hirsi Ali and rather than running from a rally at Al-Quds, seek to learn from the students; encourage critical thinking on both sides, and progressive thought. Only through frank open debate will society improve. Silencing the voice of any woman who condemns the religious role in female genital mutilation, or muzzling every campus that contains a hate-speech filled rally, won’t make either go away.