It strikes me that there should be little in this mission statement for anybody to dislike, least of all those who see themselves as the standard-bearers for “social justice” and for toleration. Still, as the more cynical among us have observed for a while now, the Left’s hierarchy of victims is a complex and contradictory thing, liable to yield all sorts of peculiar outcomes. Certainly, Ali has tended to side with a favored group — women — against a favored foe — religion. But in the process she has made the mistake of criticizing another favored group — Islam — and, Islam being customarily given a break because its adherents are generally poor and dark-skinned, that just won’t do.
Brandeis’s chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Joseph Lumbard, explained anemically that the invitation “makes Muslim students feel very uneasy.” One would rather expect so, yes. Ali has described Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” and she has made no secret of her holistic distaste for both its tenets and its practice. “Once [Islam] is defeated,” she argued bombastically during an interview with Reason in 2007, “it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”
There is no middle ground in progressivism either, it seems: Either one is in or one is out; one is a player on the right team, or one is a bigot to be protested and to be shunned.
Illustrating this neatly last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained to Brandeis that Ali was a “notorious Islamophobe,” thereby managing in a single sentence to dismiss a lifetime of experience and of work with the insinuation of irrationality and to apply to the victim a term customarily reserved for the tormentor. Typically, I object to the use of “phobic” on the grounds that, where once it meant something useful and concrete, it has now been hijacked by our self-appointed arbiters of taste and transmuted into a multipurpose cudgel against dissent. In this case, however, I must cut CAIR some slack, for, wholly inadvertently, it has hit the nail on the head. “Phobia,” as any first-year student of the classics knows, is derived from the Greek word phobos, which translates literally as “panic flight.” Could there be a more apposite description of Ali’s experiences than just that? Here is Ali on her experiences as a young Muslim girl in Somalia: “I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage, for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.”
That “world” was not the United States, but Holland, to which country Ali fled in search of emancipation. What she got instead — again at the hands of a religion that had previously attempted to remove her clitoris and to force her into a marriage that she opposed — was unimaginable horror. For the crime of sharing in documentary form what she had been through in Somalia, Ali was treated to the murder of her friend, the director Theo van Gogh, and to death threats of her own — one of which was thoughtfully pinned to van Gogh’s mutilated corpse. She fled, again, this time to the United States. Islamophobe? Sure.
Prepossessed as he was with the all-encompassing wars of his era, George Orwell complained that political language was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Unlike Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the culture warriors of America’s pampered campuses are unlikely to be dealing in murder or in warfare or, for that matter, in anything of much consequence at all. Nevertheless, they enjoy playing assassin, painting glowing targets onto the backs of any idea that threatens their power and, one by one, seeking the bullseyes. In the private sector, this is a prerogative of which no friend of liberty would seek to deprive them. Like any other organization, Brandeis can do as it sees fit. But it could at least have the decency to dress its decisions in the clothing that they deserve. “Apologies,” the faculty might say, “but we can give out honors to whomever we wish, and the truth is that we just do not like the cut of your jib.”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.