American universities may be morasses by “woke” ideology and victim narratives these days, but ever so often, we get a glimpse of what the opposite side of this puzzle could look like.
In what appears to be a thoroughly reported and researched piece from Religion News Service, we learn how American University in Cairo is jettisoning professors who dare say there are legitimate religions other than Islam.
One professor was just shoved out the exit door. RNS published a long piece telling us why:
A Saudi billionaire whose father endowed a chair in comparative religion at the American University in Cairo has pressured the school to take the position away from an American scholar teaching Egyptian students about religions other than Islam, sources told Religion News Service.
According to Adam Duker, who has held the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair of Comparative Religions at the school since 2016, Saudi businessman Tarek Taher persuaded the university’s president, Francis Ricciardone, to withdraw the title awarded in Duker’s contract after the professor refused Taher’s demand that the professor advocate for Islam over other religions in his teaching and scholarship.
A religious historian of Christian reformation movements in early modern Europe, Duker teaches an ecumenical curriculum that introduces students to the academic study of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, including lectures on Buddhism and Hinduism, in a “Religions of the World” survey course at the university.
What was the bright red line in this case? Maybe this next angle could have been the lede.
Duker said in an interview with RNS that Taher requested that Duker encourage his non-Muslim students to convert to Islam.
“Taher asked to pre-approve my lectures before teaching them and only teach other religions in such a way as to prove they were ‘incorrect’ and to convert students to Islam,” said Duker.
Since a key stage of this scholar’s academic life took place at the University of Notre Dame, I was curious to know if he is a Roman Catholic.
Readers are not given that information, which is a crucial hole in the story.
Earlier this year, the university removed the Taher chair from the listing of endowed professorships on its website. School administrators told Duker in July of 2017 he should no longer use the title in conjunction with his official duties and informed him that the donor abolished the chair without offering an alternative post or compensating Ducker for contractual abrogation, according to an email from the provost reviewed by RNS.
I looked around, expecting to find all sorts of other articles on this amazing breach of academic freedom, but very little popped up. Maybe this story didn’t fit into the right templates for newsworthiness.
This piece in TimesHigherEducation.com, a British site, reported a similar story on April 11, got into the legal aspects.
Dr Duker continued to use the title, arguing that his contract for the tenure-track position was binding with AUC and that the title could not be altered without mutual consent.
Dr Duker was then told that his “continuous use of this title is causing financial and reputational damage” to AUC, and that AUC had been “well within its right” to withdraw the title under Egyptian law. Dr Duker was also told that the university was considering launching a formal investigation that could lead to disciplinary action.
Dr Duker said that he had moved to Egypt after completing his PhD at the University of Notre Dame “in order to take up this prestigious and important position and to take up the important work of cross-confessional religious studies in a region that desperately needs it”.
“The title of chair was the reason I took the job. On a personal level, the decisions of Tarek Taher and the AUC administration are devastating,” he said.
RNS added that AUC was founded a century ago this year by Presbyterian missionaries, but has long since gone non-sectarian and that 90 percent of its student body is Muslim.
Sympathetic students set up a Facebook page in support of Duker that includes a photo of the professor moving his possessions out of his office.
AUC made the news a decade ago when it moved from its downtown Cairo location to 260 acres in a far-off suburb known as “New Cairo.” There were a lot of raised eyebrows over this, as there was, at that time, no subway line to the campus and very little supporting infrastructure.
This past February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech there, triggering a faculty revolt, according to the New York Times.
CAIRO — In a fiery speech at the American University in Cairo last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sided with the autocrats who dominate the Middle East and played down the Arab Spring protests that upended the region in 2011.
This week that speech became the trigger for a revolt against the man who hosted it: Francis J. Ricciardone, the university’s president and a former American diplomat. Mr. Ricciardone faces an open challenge from academics at the university, one of the most prestigious in the Middle East, who are angered in part by his decision to give Mr. Pompeo an unchallenged platform.
On Tuesday, the university Senate voted overwhelmingly to declare no confidence in Mr. Ricciardone, a former United States ambassador to Egypt, Turkey and the Philippines and Palau. In a resolution, the academics said that they had lost faith in Mr. Ricciardone’s stewardship of the university and urged its New York-based board of trustees to immediately begin the search for a successor.
What this whole incident shows is how hard it is to have any level discussion about religion in the Middle East. Back to the RNS report:
Duker’s students say Ricciardone and other university officials have damaged the school’s already fading reputation as a rare sanctuary for open inquiry and free discussion in Egypt, where Muslims and Christians are just beginning to engage in interfaith dialogue.
Since Ricciardone took over leadership in early 2016, the AUC has plummeted from one of the top 250 universities globally to an institution that is no longer ranked according to the Times Higher Education University World Rankings, an annual publication of university rankings by Times Higher Education magazine.
“Because Egypt is a Muslim country, it’s really hard to talk about these things, and if you don’t agree with any aspect Islam you can’t say so out loud,” said Yasmine Sakr, a 22-year-old economics and marketing communications student who is Christian and who enrolled two years ago in Duker’s comparative world religions course.
If you’re interested in how donor preferences influence university syllabi, read this piece by TimesHigherEducation. Even though the AUC example is pretty bad, donor meddling happens worldwide, unfortunately. The Saudis are simply less adept about hiding it.
Do finish the RNS piece, as it clearly took a lot of time to do and poses the question of whether robust intellectual discussion of religion can take place in Muslim academic contexts today. It’s really too bad that an institution with the American University brand chose to be so craven.
But here is my final question: Why have so few other media looked into this story?
Right now, the saga only involves one professor, but with the Arab Spring a distant memory at this point, there no doubt will be more.