Courage and cowardice
By now most readers have probably heard the story. Brandeis had publicly announced plans to give Hirsi Ali an honorary degree in May. Then, after some Muslim students launched a petition against the honor, Brandeis canceled it, citing certain critical statements she had made about Islam which the University had previously been unaware of -- a preposterous claim, since Hirsi Ali's forceful critique of Islam is what she is primarily known for.
I've seen no suggestion that Brandeis was threatened with violence. They apparently backed down in the face of the willingness of Muslims (and the usual tiresome hypocrites who side with them in such cases) to enforce a particularly ugly form of political correctness, one which taints and shames much of the left and the atheist movement in the West.
I'm referring, of course, to the double standard according to which Islam cannot be criticized and called to account for its atrocities the way Christianity is. To be sure, the scope of the problem is shrinking. New Atheist leaders such Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have always attacked Islam just as forthrightly as Christianity, recognizing that the two religions are fundamentally similar -- and over time more Western atheist bloggers have been willing to take on Islam. But in some quarters the smearing of critics of Islam as "racist" (an absurd claim, since Muslims can be of any race, just as Christians can) persists, and there are still plenty of cowards who will back down in the face of name-calling, however groundless.
There's also the matter of Hirsi Ali's association with the right wing in the West, notably accepting employment at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. While I admit I'm uncomfortable about this (especially since the US right wing itself is so dominated by religious crazies), it's understandable in view of her shabby treatment by some on the left, going back to her speaking out against clitorectomy among Muslims in the Netherlands, when she was told she was exaggerating the problem, should tone down her criticisms, etc. When Nelson Mandela was challenged over the anti-apartheid movement's willingness to align with Communists, he replied that an embattled liberation movement was in no position to be choosy about its allies -- and since rightists in the West were mostly hostile, he could hardly be blamed for seeking help elsewhere. The same point applies here.
She also supports political forces in Europe which oppose Muslim immigration, but again, this is hardly surprising and indeed a common-sense position. She knows better than anyone the menace posed by Islamism to secular Western civilization, culminating in the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim because he had worked with her on a film critical of Islam.
Brandeis's cowardice seems to have stirred up quite the online hornet's nest; one can only hope it will draw even more attention to Hirsi Ali's writings and work than the honorary degree itself would have done.
Hirsi Ali currently runs the AHA Foundation, which supports women's rights against "oppression justified by religion and culture". Her response to Brandeis can be read here. In the atheosphere, so far I've seen forthright commentary on the story from blogger Ophelia Benson, Iranian atheist Kaveh Mousavi, and American Atheists president Dave Silverman -- and I'm sure there are other responses out there. From some of the non-atheist-identified left, I'm seeing evasion, hypocrisy, and smears -- let's hope they'll someday find the decency to look back in shame at what they're now writing.