David Silverman, president of American Atheists who graduated from Brandeis in 1988, announced that he is withdrawing his support from Brandeis University and its alumni association because the academic institution rescinded its plans to give an honorary degree to controversial social commentator Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In an open letter on Facebook explaining his actions and reasoning, Silverman said that although he had fond memories of the activism and classes at Brandeis, he felt this history went contrary to the university's decision against Hirsi Ali.
"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," wrote Silverman.
"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."
In protest of Brandeis' treatment of Hirsi Ali, Silverman stated, "I am ashamed of my association with Brandeis University."
"I am withdrawing my membership in the alumni association, ending financial support of the university, and encouraging others to do the same," wrote Silverman.
"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. ... We stand for freedom of expression and of conscience," he added. "Until Ms. Hirsi Ali receives an apology from the university, I will continue to question your professed commitment to these values."
Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali immigrated to the Netherlands and became deeply involved in efforts to expose the mistreatment of women in Islamic countries.
A professed atheist, Hirsi Ali has been critical of her former religion, which has prompted many to consider her work hateful.
Groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations lobbied for Brandeis to withdraw their honorary degree for Hirsi Ali.
Students and faculty also protested the honor for Hirsi Ali, reported Emily Stott of the student newspaper the Brandeis Hoot.
"A petition started by students of the Muslim Students Association and a separate petition letter signed by faculty members drew tremendous support from the Brandeis community," wrote Stott.
On Tuesday, Brandeis released a statement announcing that in light of the pressure from CAIR and others they were going to withdraw the honor.
"She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world," reads the statement in part.
"That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier."
CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad hailed the decision in a statement as a "victory over hate" that was driven by "a unified front" of Muslim and non-Muslim parties.
"We welcome the recognition by Brandeis University that honoring an anti-Muslim bigot like Ayaan Hirsi Ali would amount to an endorsement of her hate-filled and extremist views," said Awad.
"We would like to thank all those who took part in the effort to expose Hirsi Ali's extremism and to convince the university to take corrective action."
Those scheduled to receive honorary degrees from Brandeis at commencement are Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of Harlem Children's Zone; Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times; Eric Lander, founding director and president at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; and Malcolm L. Sherman, a business leader and philanthropist who has served on the Brandeis University Board of Trustees for 33 years.