Dave Silverman writes an Open Letter to Brandeis

This is that letter.

April 10, 2014

Dear Mr. Lawrence,

I remember well my years attending Brandeis University. I remember the classes, the teachers, the students, and even the food. But perhaps most of all, I remember the activism.

I remember the student tables in Usdan pushing a diverse set of agendas. I remember the Republicans and Democrats; I remember Triskelion promoting awareness of LGBT issues. I remember a speech by Meir Kahane, who actively preached the murder of Muslims in Israel, proclaiming “violence is not the road to peace, but it is the road to survival.” I remember a student-made and staffed shanty-town protesting Brandeis’ investment in South Africa during Apartheid, and the pride I felt when Brandeis wisely divested.

Today, that pride is gone as Brandeis has caved to religious intolerance masquerading as political correctness and uninvited a valuable voice in the discussion of religion in public life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ms. Hirsi Ali is not “hateful” as some have claimed, nor does she promote violence. She is an eloquent spokesperson for the millions of women and children worldwide who live under the tyrannical thumb of Islam, as she did as a child. She speaks out in defense of justice, equality, and freedom of expression for all people. She speaks for me.

My education at Brandeis has, in no small way, allowed me to rise to the position of president of American Atheists. My job, and indeed my reason for waking up in the morning, is to fight for the rights of those whose voices too often go unheard in the forum of public debate. Those whose most basic freedoms are crushed by theocratic regimes throughout the world.

Addressing some of the most fundamental questions about human rights, particularly the rights of self-determination and free expression, is complex and difficult. When entrenched religious beliefs are used to justify cruel, immoral actions against hundreds of millions of people, we have an obligation to speak out. The criticism of religious beliefs has, in recent years, become taboo for some. This taboo, perhaps, has grown as a result of the privilege we have to live in places where diversity and the agency of individuals is paramount. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s experiences, however, are different.

Her background allows her to speak with clarity about one of the most challenging questions of our time: whether a robust commitment to equality, diversity, dialogue, and social justice is possible when we look the other way when confronted with the realities of Islamic extremism.

What you have done to Ms. Hirsi Ali is rob her of such an opportunity. You have robbed her of the opportunity to speak to Brandeis students about her lived experiences as a child in Somalia and Kenya. You have ended the “dialogue about these important issues” before it has even begun.

I find it inconceivable that you elected to invite her to speak and honor her with a degree without knowing what she stands for and what she has said about the destructive role that religion in general, and Islam in particular, plays in the well-being of women. What you have done is cave to the pressure of those who wish to censor the realities of the lived experiences of a brave woman.

No new information has changed your mind; you chose to stand with those who would rather ignore Ms. Hirsi Ali than to engage with her and with the very real problems she fights.

Recent polling indicates that fully one-third of college-aged Americans are non-religious. Many are atheists. We stand for freedom of expression and of conscience. We stand for the right to criticize all institutions and ideas, including the ones that some hold most dear. We support the rights of all people to live without being married off as children or having their genitals mutilated in the name of “culture” or religion.

I abhor your decision to withdraw your invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religiously motivated deserves recognition and honor. You have chosen instead to side with people who see criticism of religion as a crime.

Today, you have done nothing to “safeguard the safety, dignity, and well-being” of the members of our global community. You have only prevented a powerful voice for such action from being heard by your students. And you have done so in perhaps the most cowardly and dishonorable ways possible.

For the first time in my life, I am ashamed of my association with Brandeis University. Accordingly, I am withdrawing my membership in the Alumni Association, ending financial support of the University, and encouraging others to do the same.

I question whether Brandeis is still a place in which all ideas are open for discussion. No worldview, political position, and certainly no religion is above criticism. I will encourage students who value activism, diversity, and freedom of expression to choose educational opportunities other than Brandeis. Until Ms. Hirsi Ali receives an apology from the University, I will continue to question your professed commitment to these values.

It is my hope that Brandeis again becomes a place that thrives on diversity and dialogue and returns to its history of unapologetic activism and social justice, even in the face of criticism and adversity.

Goodbye, Brandeis.


Dave Silverman ‘88


  1. =8)-DX says

    Meh, Ali has said a lot of counter-factual things, definitely a lot which can be accurately labelled islamophobic/scare-mongering. But then I guess I should look to see if she’s changed her tune on these topics as of late.

    Don’t think that’s a good reason not to invite her to speak though – she has lot’s of good things to say, especially necessary concerning women and islam.

  2. Tualha says

    Hmm, well, it seems Justice Brandeis had something to say on the general subject of dealing with falsehoods such as those Ayaan Hirsi Ali is accused of.

    If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

    So … are the administrators at Brandeis University completely ignorant of the principles espoused by the man the university is named after?

  3. Al says

    Here, here. The sooner we can get her that degree back, the sooner we can help her with her campaign to convert those backward Muslims to Christianity!!!!!!

  4. Sastra says

    Al #3:
    I thought Ali’s argument was pragmatic and reasonable, given the circumstances. She’s been very close to the danger, and still is. Sometimes there is only the lesser of two evils.

    I also thought Silverman’s letter eloquent and spot on. I hope it has some effect.

  5. says

    Oh shut up, Al. The issue isn’t getting the degree “back” – it’s that Brandeis should not have taken it back. Brandeis was under no obligation whatsoever to give her the degree in the first place, but having given it, it should not have taken it back without a very good reason.

  6. smhll says

    I find the Silverman letter very persuasive.

    It’s better than the article on the same topic at The Daily Beast that starts strong, but bogs down into opinionated claims (without support) and really cliched name calling. He leans on adjectives too much.

    This is not a good paragraph, IMO.

    Today, “no platform” has gone from being a consensual means of expressing disapproval to an all-out assault intended to castigate and muzzle unpopular opinions. A growing, ecumenical constituency composed of the religiously devout, perpetually outraged Twitter activists, and eager-to-please university administrators operate under the belief that there exists a “right” not to be offended. When their bullying tactics to silence opponents doesn’t work, the no-platformers shout down their ideological adversaries, which is what would have happened to Hirsi Ali had she been allowed to participate in Brandeis’ commencement ceremony. One sees this silencing impulse in everything from Twitter busybody Suey Park (who launched the “#cancelcolbert” campaign over a joke she was either too stupid, or too cynical, to understand), to gay activists who say that opponents of marriage equality, like former Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich, should lose their jobs.

    [ author is James Kirchick]

  7. Decker says

    I think the treatment of Hirsi Ali by Brandeis was disgraceful.

    Christ! FGM, forced marriage, exile half a world away, then Theo Van Gogh, the death threats and then going underground for personnal safety; this is what she’s been through.

    Not to mention being abandonned by progressives and treated like a pariah by those who should have stepped up to the plate to help her

    Meanwhile the spineless wimps running Brandeis, or at least some of them, complain of having an intersectional hang-nail.

  8. Al says

    Thanks Ophelia that’s a great response. So this is all just an excercise in venting spleen- wonderful. But be careful telling people to shut up. According to Mrs Ali-Ferguson, that sort of silencing leads to people like Breivik gunning down innocent children.

  9. Al says

    Yeah, she’s married to Niall “fully paid up member of the neo-imperialist gang, Muslims are planning to outbreed us” Ferguson. Bye.

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