U.S. university drops plan to honour critic of Islam

Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch parliamentarian, smiles as she speaks at the European Parliament in Brussels February 14, 2008. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Scott Malone and Daniel Lovering

BOSTON (Reuters) - Brandeis University has decided not to award an honorary degree to a Somali-born women's rights activist who has branded Islam as violent and "a nihilistic cult of death."

The private university outside Boston said it had decided not to bestow the honour on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch parliamentarian who has been a staunch critic of Islam and its treatment of women.

Hirsi Ali said in a 2003 interview with a Dutch newspaper that, by modern standards, the Muslim prophet Mohammad could be considered a paedophile. In a 2007 interview with the London Evening Standard, she called Islam "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death."

"We cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values," the university said in a statement late Tuesday. "We regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier."

The move followed an open letter from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the university's president, Frederick Lawrence, saying that to do so was "unworthy of the American tradition of civil liberty and religious freedom."

Nihad Awad, the group's national executive director, said that "offering such an award to a promoter of religious prejudice such as Ali is equivalent to promoting the work of white supremacists and anti-Semites."

Hirsi Ali said in a statement on Wednesday that she was "completely shocked" by Brandeis' decision.

"My critics have long specialized in selective quotation - lines from interviews taken out of context - designed to misrepresent me and my work," Hirsi Ali said. "It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree."

Imam Talal Eid, the Muslim chaplain at Brandeis, said he and a group of Muslim students had been "very upset" about the planned award and had discussed their concerns with the university's president.

"I'm so happy to hear that the president rescinded his invitation," he said on Wednesday. "It is a relief."

Before the reversal was announced, the Brandeis student newspaper, The Justice, had published an editorial calling on Lawrence to disinvite Hirsi Ali from the commencement ceremony.

"She has the right to her opinion ... (but) an honorary degree is an endorsement," Glen Chesir, the newspaper's managing editor, said on Wednesday, adding that he and his colleagues were happy about the decision.

Located in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Brandeis was founded in 1948 with a Jewish tradition and has about 3,600 undergraduate students, according to its web site.

(editing by Gunna Dickson)

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