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Religious intolerance of Tarek Taher

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Version en español | Version française | النسخة العربية

This story has been covered by many media outlets, including FOX NEWS. You can check them by the following links:

Recap of this story was published in Annual Report of the Network of Concerned Historians (NCH) – see p.32:

People walk around The American University in Cairo. Courtesy photo

American University in Cairo professor Adam Duker on April 29, 2019, in Cairo, Egypt. Duker introduced his Egyptian undergraduates to world religions, but an influential Saudi donor intervened to stop him. Duker’s departure from Egypt raises questions about religious diversity and academic expression at one of the few American accredited universities in the Middle East. RNS photo ARA Network

The American University in Cairo (AUC) was founded by Presbyterian missionaries from the United States in 1919, but within two decades it became a non-sectarian institution. Its 6,500-member student body is estimated to be as much as 90-percent Muslim, with most of the rest being Christian, according to the Egyptian government.

The AUC is also the only Egyptian institution of higher learning certified by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a U.S. credentialing consortium. It has received millions in U.S. taxpayer funding since the 1980s.

In 2002, Tarek Taher’s father, the Saudi billionaire Abdulhadi Taher, who died in 2013, established the Abdulhadi H. Taher Professorship in Comparative Religion at AUC.

The endowment for the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair, at approximately $3.5 million, is the largest endowment for the humanities in the Arabic-speaking world. Abdulhadi Taher dedicated the chair “to support a course of study which exemplifies the beliefs of Dr. Taher by teaching religious tolerance and equality, thereby promoting peace,” according to the AUC’s website.

“The Abdulhadi H. Taher endowment for the study of comparative religion is intended to ensure that AUC offers instruction in world religions by recognized authorities in the field,” explained Michael Reimer, chair of the Department of History where comparative religion is housed. “The goal of the comparative religion program is to increase understanding of the world’s different religious traditions, foster respect and tolerance among persons of different religious traditions, and thereby promote peace between religious communities.”

Adam Duker. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)

Professor Adam Duker came to AUC in fall 2016 fresh out of graduate school, after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, to accept a position as an assistant professor and the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair in Comparative Religions.

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.

Tarek Taher is an heir to his father’s fortune and currently serves as the vice chairman of his father’s company, the Jeddah-based Al-Taher Group. Some time ago, 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.

Duker said in an interview with Religion News Service 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”

– Adam Duker, professor

Earlier this year, the university removed the Taher chair from the listing of endowed professorships on its website. School administrators told Duker in July 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. His last day teaching will be May 15, 2019.

The university’s spokesperson, Rehab Saad, declined to comment on the matter, citing confidentiality rules, but confirmed that Duker will no longer be employed by the university.

Adam DUker. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)

Duker’s problems began in January 2017, according to the professor, when Ricciardone asked him to address Taher’s concerns about teaching comparative religion to a predominantly Muslim student body. Ricciardone also requested that Duker further cultivate the Saudi as an AUC donor. This led to a meeting at Taher’s mansion in Malibu that Duker described as “truly bizarre.”

At the meeting, Duker recalled, Taher demanded the right to pre-approve all of Duker’s lectures and course materials in advance and insisted that he not teach any non-Abrahamic religions.

“[Tarek Taher] demanded that I discontinue teaching Hinduism and Buddhism, that I could only teach the Abrahamic religions, and of the Abrahamic religions, I can only teach Judaism and Christianity in such a way as to show the superiority of Islam”

– Adam Duker, professor

Since then, Duker and his students have faced other issues. In 2017 correspondence to AUC administrators, Taher objected to the professor’s use of the Oxford translation of the Koran, which uses the English word “God” instead of the Arabic “Allah” to describe the supreme being.

Taher also sent messages to individuals on campus on a student Facebook page claiming that Duker — who identifies as a Christian from a Jewish background — is a “Zionist” trying to use funds from his father’s chair “to take students to Israel” and that he “wanted Muslim students to clean a Jewish graveyard.”

Those comments referred to a November 2017 field trip Duker took his students on that included local religious landmarks such as the Sultan Hassan and al-Rifai Mosques, the Coptic Christian Hanging Church and the historic Ben Ezra synagogue. During this outing, the professor and his students were harassed by Egyptian government officials who appeared at the synagogue, according to Duker and his students.

The American University in Cairo located in Egypt. (Google maps)

“I was not allowed to expose my students to living Jews, to Jewish sites, such as synagogues, cemeteries, and most importantly he was concerned that I never take my students to Israel,”

– Adam Duker, professor

“They were yelling aggressively telling us to leave, asking students if they were Muslim and questioning us why we were at the synagogue,” recalled student Alex Ben Ghanem, who was on the field trip.

The officials pulled the students off the synagogue’s bimah, the platform from which the Torah is read.

Duker was led out of the synagogue by men wielding machine guns in front of his students. Some female students who wear the traditional hijab (head scarf) said they were interrogated about whether Duker had been trying to convert them to Judaism, according to Duker and other students.

The officials mentioned “Taher” several times during his interrogation, according to Duker.

Tarek Taher objected to the English translation of the Quran [Adam Duker] used in his class — an Oxford University Press translation — because it translated “Allah” as “God” and, in [Taher’s] view, took Allah out of the Quran.

Some students said they sent text messages to the U.S. Embassy, and, after approximately 45 minutes of being threatened with arrest, Duker was released.

Meanwhile, the university launched an investigation targeting Duker, the professor said, noting he was not interviewed in the probe. His students confirmed that they had been interviewed.

“University officials let us walk out of its doors onto a field trip without proper backing,” said Ben Ghanem. “But knowing how AUC functions, I kind of sensed that they would blame the professor and no one else. A couple of days after, it was clear there was the possibility of him (Duker) being (disciplined).”

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.

People walk around The American University in Cairo. Courtesy photo

“I did tell [Mr. Taher] he’s welcome to my classroom any time to attend, or if [Mr. Taher] ever wants a platform to explain why his family wants to invest in religious education, I would be happy to have him speak in my class or give a guest lecture. I wanted to accommodate him if I could, but the things [Mr. Taher] was asking for were so far out there that it would be a violation of my professional responsibilities to do that”

– Adam Duker, professor

“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.

“Professor Duker taught the class in a very objective way — and I was able to have open conversations with Muslim classmates about the differences and similarities and give my opinion without being scared,” she added. “It was my favorite class at AUC.”

In April 2019, the university’s Faculty Senate Grievance Committee issued a formal finding expressing concern that Tarek Taher was allowed to interfere in academic matters and influence the provost’s decision to strip Duker of his title, according to the committee’s ruling.


“This interference set a very dangerous precedent and infringed on Dr. Duker’s academic freedom”

– The Grievance Committee of the AUC Senate

It is common for colleges and universities that seek endowed chairs to specify the general topics of the chairs with donors, and to keep donors and their families engaged with the college after the gift is given.

But donors of endowed chairs are not typically allowed to oversee a professor’s work or cancel a chair if they disapprove. Typically, endowed chairs are just that — endowed — and so once set up cannot be revoked.

At the same time, the relationship between Duker and the university continues to deteriorate. On May 5, a university secretary called Duker a “kyke,” a slur for Jews, after discovering that he had asked a student to translate his request to custodial staff to help box up his books.

The university, through its spokesperson, said that it has “opened an investigation and will take swift action as appropriate,” according to a statement.

Despite the difficulties he has encountered with the Saudi billionaire, Egyptian officials and the AUC administration, Duker does not entirely regret coming to Cairo, even as he says his primary motivation was to develop the only non-sectarian comparative religions program in the Islamic world and the endowed chair, which opens doors in academia and in the community.

“The opportunity to come to Egypt to hold the largest humanities chair in the Islamic world was one of the determining factors that drew me to AUC,” he said. “In academia, a named chair is a prestigious honor that opens many doors. I have been able to use the platform of my chair to initiate interreligious dialogues in the community.”

Adam Duker, a former assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, accuses AUC of stripping him of his position for refusing “the demands of an Islamic extremist” megadonor. (Courtesy of Adam Duker)

Taher “has formally requested that he no longer wants the Abdulhadi Taher Endowed Professorship in Comparative Religions. To honor his request, we will stop funding of that professorship as of July 1, 2017.”

Taher “clearly mentioned that he does not want his family name to be associated with this professorship … So the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair of Comparative Religions no longer exists.”

It is not clear what the precise terms of the original gift agreement were, and Duker says he has not seen it. In response to a question about whether the terms of the agreement allow a donor — or an heir to the donor — to revoke the gift or to change its purpose, AUC said that “AUC policy, acting under law, permits the university from time to time to adjust the terms of gifts by donors, whether living or deceased, striving always to keep faith with the donors’ original intent under the changing circumstances of a dynamic world.”

Duker’s position was that even if Taher requested that he no longer be called the Taher chair, the university couldn’t grant the request without his consent because AUC had a contractual obligation to him. In an Oct. 20 email outlining his position, he said that he was willing to negotiate another title, but that would “require the university to either grant me a new nonrevocable endowed chair, provide financial compensation for the Taher title or buy me out of my contract.”

Duker says that instead of negotiating, AUC has retaliated against him for continuing to use the title, both in the form of the formal charge of faculty misconduct and in the form of legal threats. In February he received an email from AUC’s attorney, Sunanda K. Holmes, accusing him of being in breach of contract for continuing to use the Taher chair title. Holmes wrote, “Your continuous demands and threats and the continuous use of this title is causing financial and reputational damage to AUC, for which we intend to hold you fully liable under the law.”

Adam Duker. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)

I didn’t think this would be a long-term position once the president and provost and the dean made the decision to submit to the will of Tarek Taher.”

– Adam Duker, professor

“I came here to do the difficult work of teaching Muslim students how to understand Christians on the terms of Christianity, how to understand Jews on the terms of Judaism, how to understand Hindus on the terms of Hinduism, how to understand Buddhists on the terms of Buddhism.”
“This is incredibly important work, and no one is doing it.”

– Adam Duker, professor

Finally, AUC’s students created the Facebook fan page to support Professor Adam Duker, it now has almost 8,000 people: https://www.facebook.com/TheAbdulhadiHTaherChair/

On this page, someone published a few of Tarek’s replies regarding this situation:

To be continued…

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