By NUR SEVENCAN ’17
Recently, Brandeis declared that they will give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree in their 2014 commencement. I first heard of Ali when I came to Wellesley in the fall. She was featured in the syllabus of a course I was considering. In the media, and Western media especially, she is featured for both being a women rights’ worker and an anti-Islamist. When I read her biography, I learned that she went through horrible experiences such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage. This is something I cannot even imagine, but does it justify her Islamophobic statements?
First of all, I am from a country in which the majority of the population identifies as Muslim. I am the only daughter of a family of three children, and my parents paid more attention to my education because they know that this world is not an easy place for women, in both Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries.
When I mention to people that it is not religion that brings about unjust treatments, they tell me, “But your context is different; you are from Turkey.” Exactly! If I am from a Muslim country where the practice of female mutilation is unheard of, what does it tell us about such practices? Such practices do not have to do with religion; they have to do with culture. I am not trying to paint a naive picture of women living happily ever after in the Muslim world. The phenomena of forced marriages and domestic violence unfortunately still exist and should be fought against. But first, these issues do not only concern Muslims, and secondly, within the Muslim world, these practices have no religious basis.
However, Ali’s statements find great demand in several media outlets that portray Islam as the source of ill treatment of women. She made such statements that are blatantly Islamophobic and cannot be justified in any context. “Violence is inherent in Islam — it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” she said. Ali does not only condemn the acts of human rights violations, she associates them with religion and furthermore blames these acts on Islam. Any person who considers her statements would see that there is no logical connection between these violations of women’s rights and Islam. If the apples you bought from your local grocery shop turned out to be rotten, would you condemn all the grocery stores in the country? Or would you curse the apples? She also made other statements claiming that the problem with Islam is not the extremists, but the Islamic ideology itself.
When I learned about Brandeis’ decision to honor Ali, I was shocked at the idea of how a liberal institution, which is supposed to respect the religious values of its community members, could honor this person. I imagined myself being a student at Brandeis, on graduation day. Would it be fair to be forced to witness a person who condemns my beliefs and my way of life being honored? Would that be my graduation gift?
I signed the petition that opposed Brandeis’s honoring of Ali. Soon afterward, Brandeis issued a statement that they will no longer honor her. In their statement, they expressed their appreciation for her work as a women’s rights advocate and yet recognized that her statements are “inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Interestingly, at the end of the statement, they implied that they were not aware of her past statements.
Though Brandeis University’s awareness of her past statements is questionable, withdrawal of the honor was a wise decision. When Brandeis cancelled their invitation, certain media outlets such as TIME magazine and Fox News featured headlines that stated, “They simply wanted me to be silenced” and “Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Victim of an honor killing.”
At this point, the issue of freedom of speech arises.When someone insults a person of color, they are racist. When someone insult a homosexual, they are homophobic.When someone insults Islam, however, they are not considered to be Islamophobic. Rather, they are using their freedom of speech to criticize. I am lucky enough to have a community here at Wellesley that can differentiate between criticism and hate speech. And as for the people out there who still think Islamophobic statements can be justified through freedom of speech, I ask them, “When somebody insults your values, gender and way of life, will you be able to say ‘Of course; it is freedom of speech’?”
I do respect and value freedom of speech, but I stand firmly against hate speech. Sometimes I feel like they simply want us to be tired out, tired out of fighting against injustice, tired out of trying to prove we are as human as everybody else. But they will not tire me out.