Brandeis University offered an honorary degree to a controversial speaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then withdrew it under pressure from Muslim students. Controversies always have at least two sides, right? Not when the New York Times reports it. In its story on the dispute, the Times cites three sources who opposed Hirsi Ali's appearance.
How many voices speaking on Hirsi Ali's side? None.
There's an attack by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling her "one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide."
There's Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute: "... for an institution like Brandeis to choose to honor someone like this is really disappointing."
And there's a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, who endorses Brandeis' decision.
The Times adds: "Having drawn fire for inviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Brandeis may now take criticism from other camps, whether for disavowing Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views, or for giving in to Muslim activists."
You bet they might. So why didn’t the newspaper ask anyone?
Could the Times perhaps have called the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee? Or the American Enterprise Institute, where Hirsi Ali is a visiting fellow?
How about one of a dozen Jewish organizations at Brandeis? Surely the newspaper could have found a Jewish source at a school that was founded for Jewish higher education -- as a 1998 Times article noted?
The Times story is not totally one-sided. It notes in the lede that Hirsi Ali is a "campaigner for women’s rights" as well as a "fierce critic of Islam." It reports that it tried to reach her by phone and e-mail. And it offers two paragraphs of explanation for her antagonism to Islam:
Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far. A native of Somalia, she has written and spoken extensively of her experience as a Muslim girl in East Africa, including undergoing genital cutting, a practice she has vigorously opposed, and her family’s attempts to force her to marry a man against her wishes.
She moved to the Netherlands as a young woman, and she was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She wrote the screenplay for “Submission,” a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Shortly after its release, the director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, who pinned to the victim’s body a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali as well.
But it would have been better to quote someone who was on her side.
Asking comment from Maya Berry is puzzling in itself. Most Muslims are not Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims, as the Arab American Institute's own website indicates. Even Hirsi Ali isn't Arab; she was born in Somalia.
Other media had little trouble going to the other side, as it were. Omar Sacirbey of the Religion News Service quotes two of them in the second paragraph of his piece. And an Associated Press story quotes a professor who refused to sign a faculty letter against Hirsi Ali:
Thomas Doherty, chairman of American studies, refused to sign the faculty letter. He said it would have been great 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.”
But the AP story overmatches that quote with an anti-Hirsi Ali professor, plus a Muslim student and, again, Ibrahim Hooper.
I also find fault with the Times for heavily cherry-picking Hirsi Ali's most extreme-sounding quotes, almost as if to support Brandeis' decision. It leads with a partial quote in which she calls Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” Toward the end of the story, it adds other partial quotes:
In 2007, Ms. Hirsi Ali gave an interview to The London Evening Standard that was, by her own telling, the most unvarnished public expression of her views to that point, including the “cult of death” comment. She advocated the closing of Islamic schools in the West and said that “violence is inherent in Islam” and that “Islam is the new fascism.”
Later that year, in an interview with the publication Reason, she said, “I think that we are at war with Islam,” and said it must be defeated. “It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now,” she said. “They’re not interested in peace.”
Sure, she's been known to talk like that, but she sounds less wild-eyed when she's quoted more fully. In an interview in 2007, I asked her nine questions, some of them tough. Her answers were hard-nosed but systematic.
One quote of hers that resonated for me: "Islam is not a race, it's a religion. And you can criticize a religion. And criticism of ideas only helps improve them, and replace them with better ideas."
Hirsi Ali herself has hit back at Brandeis. In a statement, she denounces "the slur on my reputation" by the university, yet says that's not the worst of it:
More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The “spirit of free expression” referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.
The New York Times may not have wanted to silence Hirsi Ali altogether. But it sure didn’t stretch to find and quote her supporters.
Photo: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, by Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia.com (CC-by-2.0)