Representatives from 35 campus groups and student organizations have signed a letter drafted by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) that expresses concern over an event that is bringing a controversial speaker to campus.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali — a Somali-born American activist known for her women’s rights advocacy and critical remarks about Islam — is slated to give a lecture titled “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West” on Sep. 15 as part of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program speaker series. The daughter of a Somali politician and opposition leader, Hirsi Ali has publicly voiced criticism of practices such as female genital mutilation and has also voiced support for atheism and women’s rights. The MSA’s letter does not ask for a withdrawal of Hirsi Ali’s invitation, according to MSA board member Abrar Omeish ’17, but rather draws attention to her allegedly hurtful anti-Muslim statements and her lack of qualifications to speak broadly about Islam. Despite this, Buckley Program president Rich Lizardo ’15 said the group intends to proceed with its original plans for the event.
“An invitation and decision to go forward with this event is not an endorsement of her views or her past statements,” said Lizardo. “It is an endorsement of her right to share those views and an endorsement of free speech.”
Omeish said that though the MSA respects and sympathizes with Hirsi Ali’s harrowing personal experience as a former Muslim, she often speaks about Islam as an authoritative academic figure while lacking the necessary scholarly credentials. Omeish added that many of her statements on Islam have not only been factually disproven but are also inflammatory, hateful and hurtful to the Muslim community and other communities.
Omeish referenced a 2007 interview with the London Evening Standard, in which Hirsi Ali described Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
Omeish said that the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech.
“The difference here is that it’s hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment. That’s what we’re trying to condemn here.”
After becoming aware of the Buckley Program’s plan to bring Hirsi Ali to campus, Omeish met with Lizardo last week to discuss Hirsi Ali’s speaking engagement and the MSA’s requests. According to Omeish, the MSA never intended to disinvite Hirsi Ali, but instead requested the invitation of a second speaker with academic credentials on the subject. The MSA also asked that Hirsi Ali’s speech be limited to her personal experience and professional expertise.
But Lizardo responded that the Buckley Program would not adopt the MSA’s requests and would not change the format or content of the lecture.
“If the principle is freedom of expression and freedom of speech, then having someone there to correct her views, which is essentially what MSA would like to happen … would only hinder the principle or idea further of free speech,” Lizardo said.
Lizardo added the Buckley Program was motivated to invite Hirsi Ali when Brandeis University officials disinvited her from their school’s campus in April and rescinded her honorary degree after professors and students raised concerns over her allegedly anti-Muslim statements in the past. The Buckley Program interpreted this act as a “form of unmerited censorship at an academic institution,” Lizardo said.
Lizardo said Hirsi Ali’s speaking engagement is particularly important in light of Yale’s emphasis on freedom of speech and expression — which was touched upon in University President Peter Salovey’s freshman address this year — and the Buckley Program’s desire to bring a diversity of opinions to campus.
While in talks with the Buckley Program, the MSA also corresponded with many other campus organizations to garner support for its position. The group met with some of these groups Tuesday to determine the exact contents of a letter that will decry Hirsi Ali’s statements and lack of scholarly credentials.
Yupei Guo ’17, co-president of the service organization Building Bridges, said in an email that she conditionally agreed to sign the letter because “religiously and culturally intolerant speech should not be an advertised event on campus.” She said she and her group do not, however, condemn Hirsi Ali as a person.
Candice Hwang ’16, co-moderator of the Asian American Students Alliance (AASA) and a signee of the letter, said she wants to stand up in solidarity with MSA, one of AASA’s eight constituent groups.
“Regardless of what minority, cultural group or religious group we’re representing, it definitely hurts to hear someone say untrue and disrespectful things about you,” Hwang said. “No one wants to be told you’re something you’re not.”
Following Omeish and Lizardo’s initial meeting, both have been in contact with administrators concerning the event. According to Lizardo, Salovey emailed him and expressed hope that the event would prompt a vibrant yet civil discussion.
In an email to the News, Salovey clarified that students may invite speakers regardless of their views or beliefs. According to University policy, students may also engage in dialogue with the speaker or organize peaceful protests that do not negatively impact the audience’s ability to listen to the speaker, Salovey said.
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and Coordinator of Muslim Life Omer Bajwa issued a joint statement to the News in which they confirmed the University’s commitment to free expression but raised concerns over Hirsi Ali’s prior comments about Islam.
“We are deeply concerned … by Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s long record of disparaging, and arguably hateful, comments about Muslims and Islam,” the statement read. “To better represent the whole Yale community and its educational goals, we recommend the organizers consider actions to expand the event, such as allowing concerned students to present their perspectives or adding a scholarly voice to create a more nuanced conversation.”
Lizardo has requested meetings with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews, Salovey and Omeish to discuss events that could take place on the day of Hirsi Ali’s talk.
Omeish has also requested a meeting between Buckley Program organizers and MSA students after the event to explain their concerns over Hirsi Ali’s visit and to discuss how both groups can foster better sensitivity in the future.
Goff-Crews confirmed in an email that she is engaging with members of the Yale community who are involved in the matter.