On Some of the Recent News Events

It’s that time of the year (finals, commencement, World Cup) when things get busy, and I haven’t been posting about some of the major events that have transpired recently. So, as I’m wont to do, here’s a (not so) quick run down and response to a couple of these stories.

Ayaan Hersi Ali Got Dumped by Brandeis University

Should Brandeis University be getting the flak its getting from all sides for awarding and then revoking an honorary degree to Ayaan Hersi Ali? Yes. Is it an egregious abandonment of liberalism for Brandeis University to revoke the honorary degree? I don’t think so. Here’s why: When the US invaded Iraq, students at my alma mater secretly hung an anti-war banner on the main administrative building of the college. This building housed the president’s office. The next morning, the school took down the banner. Some students were upset because they felt this was the college infringing on their free speech. The administration countered that this was about remaining institutionally neutral on the topic. They wanted to encourage and foster dialog and debate on the war, and they felt that a one-sided banner on their building sent a message that the school, as an institution, took a side. They encouraged the banner be moved to the student hall or the dorms.

The Hersi Ali situation, to my mind, is similar. The reason being, Hersi Ali was not simply scheduled to be a speaker on the campus. She was to be awarded an honorary degree. One of the values most universities occasionally pay lip-service to is diversity, especially for the university to be a safe space for a diverse student body to freely explore diverse topics. There is nothing strange nor overly sensitive about Muslim students being offended by Hersi Ali’s comments about Islam. You don’t have to disagree with her to understand why Hersi Ali’s describing of Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” would offend Muslims. By bestowing to her an honorary degree, Brandeis University runs the risk of sending the wrong message to its Muslim students. This is why I am not bothered by their revoking of the degree. Should Brandeis University have better vetted the situation? Of course.

Now, if a campus group had invited Hersi Ali to speak at Brandeis, and the university intervened to cancel the event due to protests, that would be an egregious abandonment of the values of the university. That would be the institution stepping in to take a side instead of providing a space for the exploration of ideas. But that is not, to my mind, what happened at Brandeis.

Responses to Boko Haram kidnapping over 200 girls in Nigeria

In the wake of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, Terry Firma posted a review of the situation and asked if the West should intervene. This post was picked up by an Islam-related subreddit (Firma posted about this as well). The subreddit covers a wide swath of opinions on the matter, but one of the most recurring topics was concern that Muslims have to defend Islam against non-Muslims’ (especially Westerners’) criticisms of the Islamist aspect of Boko Haram’s actions.

As Firma rightly points out, a number of the comments basically reduce down to the No True Scotsman fallacy. There were repeated attempts to deny that Boko Haram are really Islamic. Comments like the following are pretty exemplary of this conversation and others like it:

FXOjafar: “Stop calling these people Islamists. They are not Islamic anything.”
[In response] WentwildStayedwild: “I agree. They are Nigerian criminals and that’s what they should be called.”

I’m sympathetic to this impulse. Whenever I read a story about the cringe-worthy actions of an atheist, I want to distance myself from the individual. Speaking of Muslims in the US, specifically, they are the targets for violence and descrimination (see here, here, and here for example) rising especially from the fear fostered post-9/11 despite the fact that terrorism by Muslim Americans has been in decline. Any heinous act committed by a Muslim can become fodder used to justify further violence against Muslims, so the desire to disown extremists is understandable. Lastly, let’s be fair, groups like Boko Haram don’t represent the average Muslim. As was noted in the Economist, Boko Haram’s kidnapping of school girls is as representative of Islam as the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of funerals represents Christianity.

However, the analogy is perhaps more apt that it lets on. Although the Westboro Baptist Church’s practice of picketing funerals is rare, its religiously motivated homophobia is not. In fact, among conservative Christians in the United States, legal protections for the LGBTQ community are described as a form of religious persecution against Christians. Similarly, though the kidnapping of school girls may not be common practice among Muslims, majority Islamic countries often score poorly on assessments of the status and treatment of women and girls.

This is where some of the sentiments expressed on the Islam subreddit page fall short. Just because criticisms may by used by bigots to justify their bigotry does not mean that the criticisms are not worthy of consideration. Moreover, criticism, in itself, is not a form bigotry. Perhaps most troubling, as with conservative Christians and protections for the LGBTQ community, attempts to institutionalize protections for women are met with resistance by some Muslim countries on the grounds of being against their religion.

Are the actions of groups like Boko Haram in line with the principles of Islam? That’s not really for me to say. I’m not a Muslim. The take away from the Islam subreddit (see also here and here, for example) is that the answer to this question is no. However, they are the actions of Muslims, and they are actions done in the name of Islam. Simply denying this is both factually wrong and of little value for those harmed by the actions. Cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammad sparked protests in the streets, but kidnapping children in the name of Islam did not. I get that there are Muslims trying to fight the good fight, but these voices seem to be in the minority. I would love to be proven wrong.

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