The city of Boston marks a somber anniversary today: It’s been a year since a pair of homemade bombs ripped through an area near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260. Authorities say the accused terrorists executed the attacks after a descent into radical Islam.
So it’s ironic that a local university would revoke its invitation to an outspoken critic—and former victim—of radical Islam. Officials at Brandeis University—a private nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored school in Waltham, Mass., 10 miles west of Boston—rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a campaign by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) claimed the author and activist had “spewed anti-Muslim hate.”
Brandeis’ reversal is more than just another round in the yearly commencement speech and honorary degree battles that mark every graduation season. It’s also a dismissal of a look into the kind of radicalization that spewed blood and body parts across the streets of downtown Boston just one year ago.
It’s true that Hirsi Ali isn’t easy on Islamists. She has spent much of the last decade decrying the abuses of radical Islam, particularly against women in predominantly Muslim countries.
For Hirsi Ali, this isn’t a research project. The Somali-born woman escaped the severity of her own radical Islamist culture, but not before enduring common abuses like the brutal and dangerous practice of female circumcision as a child.
After fleeing home, Hirsi Ali renounced Islam and became a member of the Dutch Parliament from 2003 to 2006. She faced death threats for criticizing radical Islamists’ treatment of women. She published a 2007 account of her experiences in a memoir called Infidel. (WORLD ran a 2007 cover story and interview with Hirsi Ali after the book’s release.)
CAIR has excoriated Hirsi Ali for her activism, including her participation in the recent documentary Honor Diaries, an unflinching look into the treatment of women in some Muslim societies. But CAIR is controversial as well: The FBI severed ties with the group years ago, citing its connections to terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Still, CAIR’s campaign against Hirsi Ali was effective enough to rouse a group of students and faculty to protest the school’s award and speaking invitation. The school revoked the offer last Wednesday. Hirsi Ali said the university had turned an honor “into a moment of shaming.”
A day later, The Wall Street Journal published an abridged version of the remarks Hirsi Ali had planned to deliver at Brandeis. She began with the Boston bombing. Hirsi Ali noted that one year ago families were grieving sudden losses and “hovering over bedsides, watching as young men, women, and children endured painful surgeries and permanent disfiguration. All because two brothers, radicalized by jihadist websites, decided to place homemade bombs in backpacks. …”
Indeed, investigators have chronicled the radicalization of accused bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died in a shootout with police three days after the bombing. The ethnic Chechen had traveled to Russia in 2011, and Russian authorities warned the FBI he was a follower of radical Islam.
The surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 20, told authorities the brothers were motivated by Islamist views and learned how to build the pressure-cooker bombs from the English-language, online magazine of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. (One article was called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”) The magazine is filled with terror-fueled articles, and its first editor, Samir Khan, declared he was “proud to be a traitor to America.” (Khan died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011).
The FBI still faces questions over whether it reacted appropriately to Russian officials’ warnings that Tamerlan could be radical. A report earlier this month—commissioned by President Obama’s director of national intelligence—largely cleared the FBI of serious mistakes, but the House Committee on Homeland Security delivered a more critical assessment in March. The congressional report said government agencies missed opportunities to communicate and follow-up on the danger posed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining bomber, now faces a potential death penalty if a jury convicts him on 30 federal charges, including using weapons of mass destruction to kill civilians.
Hirsi Ali planned to tell students at Brandies: “You deserve better memories than 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing.” In her published remarks, she also noted escalating violence in the Muslim world, including in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Egypt. She also noted violence and abuse against women is increasing in the same regions. For example, a proposed law in Iraq would lower the age at which a girl’s family may force her into marriage—the new age would be 9.
“The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored,” Hirsi Ali wrote. “We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.
“So I ask: Is the concept of holy war compatible with our ideal of religious toleration? … Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation.”
For now, Hirsi Ali won’t be making that argument at Brandeis University. Before the school rejected her, she acknowledged in her prepared remarks that many people find her beliefs controversial: “I’m used to being shouted down on college campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen.”