Published April 18, 2014
The two bombers who killed and maimed innocent people at the Boston marathon a year ago had come as refugees to America, from conflicts that America and her people did nothing to cause. They had been granted the privileges of a law-abiding democracy, including education, health care and the precious freedoms for which Americans have fought in two world wars. Their situation was incomparably better than it would have been, had they stayed behind in Chechnya. Among the many privileges that they enjoyed religious freedom was by no means the least important. They were able to attend their local mosque, to take part in its services and activities and to absorb whatever lessons it had to impart, without fear of persecution from their Christian, Jewish, Hindu or atheist neighbours.
Of course, not everything in America is perfect, and even the recipient of American hospitality might have cause to complain of its more chilling side-effects. He might be repelled by aspects of the consumer culture that offend the moral and religious norms of his community. He might balk at the severity of a social discipline which treats him merely as the equal of his neighbour and which constantly challenges his high opinion of himself. But he will know that at every point he can count on the charitable instinct of the American people to offer help and support that was seldom available in the place from which he came. Why else, after all, did he come?
Something happened, however, to turn these two brothers against the gentle society that surrounded them. We don’t know what it was; but we have a very good suspicion. And the object of that suspicion is Islam. Because we live in a tolerant society, which believes in equality before the law and the right of each individual to a faith of his own, we don’t allow ourselves to criticise Islam, but only to take issue with what we take to be the abuse of it. Our politicians and commentators lean over backwards to distinguish the Islam of ordinary Muslims from the extremism of the radicals, and no doubt they are right to do so, for this too is part of hospitality. Moreover it is inconceivable to me that my friends who practise the Muslim faith should turn on their law-abiding neighbours and destroy them in the name of Allah.
Nevertheless, we cannot simply disregard the evidence, that there are Muslims among us who interpret their religion in another way. The liberal mind-set, which blames their crimes on ‘Islamophobia’, as though we, who threatened no one, were to blame for the attacks on us, shows a wilful disregard of the truth, and a crazy inversion of cause and effect. No doubt we should be careful not to be provoked. And the peaceful ceremonies with which the people of Boston have marked the anniversary of the bombings show that they have not been provoked, and that they continue to live in the open and charitable way for which the bombers chose, for reasons of their own, to punish them. But let’s face it, planted in the heart of Islam is the worm of contempt for the infidel, and this worm can lodge in the brains of otherwise reasonable people and gnaw away at their conscience until no conscience remains. If we do not acknowledge this, then we do an injustice not only to ourselves, but also to those Islamic thinkers, from Ibn Rushd in medieval Andalusia to Muhammad Ali Jinnah in modern Pakistan, who have worked to reconcile the absolutism of the Koran with the demands of civil society.
It is in order to emphasize this that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has put her life on the line. Coming to Holland as a refugee from Somalia she set out to remind us of our incredible good luck. She told us that we in the West are heirs to the Enlightenment, which teaches that all people are equal, that women are not the property of men, that we can resolve our conflicts without violence and by means of a secular and man-made law, that we can live without obeying the arbitrary commands of self-appointed men of God, and in obedience to the conscience that all rational beings share. She herself was the victim of the oppressive attitude to women that is still, today, the norm in so many Islamic societies. She suffered genital mutilation as a child and was forced to flee from an arranged marriage. But she took it on herself to explain what that kind of oppression means, and to appeal on behalf of the many women who are not allowed to enjoy the freedoms in search of which she made the long and difficult journey to the Netherlands.
She studied philosophy, and learned to tell her story in lucid Dutch. And because she told her story she became the target of people whose brains had been eaten away by the worm of religious anger, and who have self-righteously condemned her to death. Elected as a member of the Dutch Parliament, she continued, at risk to her life, to speak out on behalf of Western civilisation and its freedoms, against the tyranny from which she had escaped. Deprived of her citizenship by a Dutch government frightened of the truths that she put before it, she came to America, here to continue her work, death-threats notwithstanding, on behalf of our civilisation.
I am not in favour of the growing habit among universities of awarding honorary degrees to politicians, CEOs and celebrities, merely in order to gain status for themselves or to illustrate their political correctness. An honorary degree ought to reflect the recipient’s achievements in the intellectual sphere, when these achievements are either great in themselves, or an expression of a life informed by public spirit and lived on behalf of the rest of us. It gave me great pleasure, therefore, when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was awarded an honorary doctorate by Brandeis University – to be conferred precisely now, at the first anniversary of the Boston bombings. What better way to show that we stand for something, that we believe in ourselves and the people who are prepared to make sacrifices on our behalf? The intellectual life as we know it and as our universities are obliged to endorse it, is a life in freedom, in which the dissenter is protected against every orthodoxy that would seek to suppress him. To honour Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose battle on behalf of intellectual freedom has awoken so many of us to its value, is to show, as all universities should show, a commitment to the true life of the mind.
The award was all the more gratifying in that Brandeis university, founded in 1948, and named in honour of Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), the first Jewish Justice of the US Supreme Court, has made a point of offering a non-sectarian education under the sponsorship of the local Jewish community. It is a valued and civilising presence in the Boston area and in the intellectual life of Massachusetts. The award of this degree at this critical and anxious time made a clear statement, on behalf of the values that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has defended in her distinguished and beautifully written books. What better way of expressing our solidarity with the victims of the Boston bombing?
Inevitably, of course, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) protested. Hadn’t a death sentence been passed on this troublesome woman? Wasn’t she guilty as an apostate, and hadn’t she spoken out against the society that created her and to which her allegiance was owed? Wasn’t all this stuff about the rights of women really ‘Islamophobia’? Knowing the sanctimonious clap-trap with which CAIR masks its contempt for the American idea of freedom, I was not surprised by this. But when I learned that 85 of the 350 members of the faculty at Brandeis had, in response, signed a petition calling for the award to be rescinded, on the grounds that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a purveyor of ‘hate speech’, and that her presence would make Muslim students ‘uncomfortable’, I recognized the real problem that we now confront, which is not Islam, but the liberal mind-set.
We are embroiled in an existential conflict, for which innocent people in the West are paying with their lives. Liberals tell us that ‘we’ are to blame for this conflict and not those who attack us. When someone flees to the West, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali did, in order to say ‘not so, it is they who are to blame’, instead of welcoming her many among us wish to turn her away. For her message is a threat to our complacency. No one could possibly want to attack us, the liberals insist, since we are so obviously nice – at least, the liberals among us. Our enemies are not those who threaten Western civilisation, but those who defend it, since their words are a ‘provocation’ and their presence an affront. Thus is blame redirected from the aggressor to the victim, and the duty to defend our inheritance turned into a duty to reject it.
To my chagrin Brandeis University caved in to this petition, and the offer of an honorary degree has been rescinded. This great university, created by American Jews in order to pass on the values of Western civilisation, has chosen instead to betray them.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.