Professor who fled Egypt over censorship at American University in Cairo: ‘There’s still an accounting that needs to take place’

September 6, 2019

Professor Adam Duker puts his faith in faith. 

Specifically, the transformative power of teaching world religions to students who’ve never been exposed to them.

Hired in 2016 as the endowed Abdulhabi H. Taher Chair of Comparative Religions at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, Duker had the unique task of building the first religious studies program of its kind in the Islamic world — one dedicated to exploring all faiths. 

“It was a tremendous honor,” Duker said of being selected by AUC after an international search, straight from grad school at the University of Notre Dame. “I could teach my students what Jews actually believe and what Christians actually believe, how they see the world, how atheists and Hindus and Buddhists and Mormons and all sorts of other people understand the world and their place in it.”

That’s no small feat at AUC — even though its students are some of the most elite in Egypt. 

Duker’s classes tackle a much broader range of faith-related issues than his majority Muslim students are used to. Educated predominately in Egypt’s religiously-segregated K-12 classrooms, and in a country where converting from Islam or proselytizing for other religions is prohibited, students say Duker’s classes —  delving into material about topics like Mormonism and the religious implications of the food we eat (“From Moses to McDonald’s,” Duker says) — were nothing short of a revelation. 

“Outside of my Comparative Religions classes, it is extremely rare in Egyptian society for Muslims and Christians to explore and debate commonalities and differences in a free, safe, and open setting,” Duker said. 

“I wanted my students to understand what makes an Evangelical or a devout Roman Catholic or a Lutheran or a Reformed Jew or a Mahayana Buddhist tick. How do they view their world and their responsibility to others?” Duker said, “This was a challenge, but it was something that I’ve seen a lot of success with.”

But Duker’s faith in AUC to help him meet that challenge was misplaced.

Adam Duker on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)Adam Duker on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)

After nearly three years unsuccessfully battling both the university and the family of an influential donor over control of his course content, Duker left AUC this spring. He also fled Egypt altogether, citing concerns for his life, after he was seized by a group of men with machine guns during a class field trip late last year. Duker thinks they were Egyptian state security agents. And while he can’t confirm it, he suspects an AUC administrator — among the very few who knew his whereabouts that day — may have tipped those agents off. 

This summer, FIRE wrote the university about its treatment of Duker. AUC’s response did not challenge the factual allegations contained in FIRE’s letter, but failed to admit any wrongdoing either.

“The university is committed to advancing academic freedom with respect to teaching and scholarship,” AUC’s provost wrote.

Today, Adam Duker is moving on from AUC and into a temporary space on the rural Massachusetts campus of Mount Holyoke College. He’s teaching there on a one-year contract and, he says, going through trauma recovery with his wife and young son, who fled Egypt with him.

While Duker left the country months ago, he’s still trying to put what happened there behind him.

‘Faculty Misconduct’

Adam Duker’s case at AUC highlights a growing problem FIRE has documented facing students and faculty at a number of American-affiliated or accredited institutions of higher education. They promise American-style freedoms, but — set in significantly unfree countries like Egypt — can’t deliver.

AUC is incorporated in the U.S., has a New York office, and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. MSCHE accredits primarily U.S. colleges and universities and requires a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression.

In its policies, AUC agrees to provide students and faculty all of those freedoms. But that’s not the reality. 

When it’s expedient, Duker explains, “[AUC] likes to play both sides of the fence.”

“When I speak to donors and when [AUC] applies for [U.S. aid], they make it very clear that this is an American institution that plays by the First Amendment,” he said. “But whenever a faculty member actually exercises that freedom, then they want to play by Egyptian law and fire them without cause.”

“This is definitely what I walked into when the controversy emerged about my chair.”

Tarek Taher

The point of an endowed professorship is for it to exist in perpetuity. A donor provides a large enough sum of money that the interest alone can support the professor appointed to the position. The initial sum, left to accrue even more interest over time, grows for future use.

“One of the things that the endowed chair guaranteed is that there would always be someone teaching these classes, [and] there would always be a comparative religions program at the American University in Cairo,” Duker said. “If I quit or didn’t get tenure, they would be obligated to hire someone else because that money is there for that purpose.”

“Right now, there’s no guarantee that the Comparative Religions Program at American University in Cairo will continue.”

Concerns over the fate of Duker’s chair began in January 2017, when he was asked by AUC administrators to meet with Tarek Taher — the son of the late Abdulhadi H. Taher, the namesake of Duker’s professorship — at his Malibu mansion.

During the meeting, when Taher left to use the restroom, his wife Jessica confided to Duker that Taher told her he had been visited in a dream by a celestial being who voiced concerns about Duker not doing enough to promote Islam in his classes. 

Taher said Duker was using a disfavored translation of the Quran.

He asked the professor to type out all his lectures in advance and send them to him for pre-approval.

And there was more.

“He was furious that I had my students interact with living Jews,” Duker recalled. “He thought the main purpose of my teaching of the other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, should be to demonstrate the superiority of Islam to those religions.”

Duker refused to cede control over his lectures and syllabus, but felt the meeting ended amicably. 

Yet, that summer, Duker received an unexpected notice from AUC Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman informing Duker that his position had been cancelled altogether — at Taher’s behest. 

“After numerous conversations with Mr. Tarek Taher,” the letter read, “he has formally requested that he no longer wants the Abdulhadi Taher Endowed Professorship in Comparative Religions.”

AUC said Duker could remain on the faculty. Yet, Duker’s contract, which has never been formally modified or rescinded, still granted him the Taher Chair title — so Duker continued using it. 

At this point, Duker said, he had come to expect academic freedom abuses at AUC.

During his very first semester, the history department chair demanded the professor spend more time on Hinduism and Buddhism, and less — contrary to Duker’s syllabus — on pop music, religious satire, and the Tony-winning Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.” Duker was also asked to nix a planned showing of the PG-13 fast food exposé, “Super Size Me,” because it contained elements the department chair found “offensive.”

All told, Duker calculates he “was subject to three faculty misconduct investigations in three years.”

“Each one of these is a quite intensive, traumatic, invasive sort of procedure that consumes most, if not all, of your research time.”

‘Infidel Coffee’

By Duker’s own account, and those of his former students, Duker’s pedagogical choices — when free from administrative meddling — were wildly successful. 

“[S]he came to be able to interact with me, someone who she assumed was an infidel originally, on a more human level.”

In a region where religious tensions are high, even discussing other religions in beneficial terms can be considered blasphemous. But students who enrolled in Duker’s classes said that once exposed to a broader knowledge base, they could not return to their formerly-narrow views.

“By spending a semester actually engaging in these big ideas,” Duker said, “I’ve seen students who wouldn’t shake a non-Muslim hand come up and give them hugs at the end of the semester.”

Duker had a similar experience himself, with a Hijabi student who came to his office hours during his very first days at AUC.

“She told me she wouldn’t shake my hand because she assumed I was an infidel,” Duker said, underscoring that he never discloses his religion, or lack thereof, to students or colleagues.

But Duker thought he might have a way to win her over. In Egypt, where coffee is “fairly low quality,” he says he learned it was relatively easy to ingratiate himself to any faculty member or student who came to his office — by breaking out the good stuff.

“I would import the best coffee from the United States and Australia. My wife is Austrailian. We would bring back the best roasts from New South Wales and the best hipster places in the United States, and I would make these amazing pour-over coffees for my students, and they loved it.” 

But not this student.

“She said that, no, she wouldn’t drink my ‘infidel coffee,’” even after, Duker says, “I explained to her that coffee is neither faithful nor unfaithful. It’s just coffee.”

However something about their interaction that day seemed to have affected her.

“She ended up taking furious notes for the rest of the semester. You could tell at the end of every lecture, her hand was just — she needed to massage her own hand on the way out the door. It was just burning red from gripping the pen so tightly. She set the curve on my midterm. She did very well in the final student debate. She was one of my best students, if not my best student, that semester.” 

“She comes to my office towards the end of the semester just to check in on her grade. When I opened the door to let her in, she instantaneously gave me one of these sort of awkward half hugs,” Duker remembered. “When we sit down and I’m telling her that she got an A in the class, she asked me if I can make her a cup of coffee!”

“That episode will always stick out in my mind because over the course of the semester, by learning about Jews and Christians and other sorts of people, she came to be able to interact with me, someone who she assumed was an infidel originally, on a more human level.”

“This particular student was living proof that you can gain a lot from a class once you engage with it on those terms,” Duker said, “rather than as an exercise in maintaining religion in the face of adversarial faculty.”

Adam Duker on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)Adam Duker on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)

Other current and former AUC students told FIRE Duker’s courses had a profound impact on their lives.

“Professor Duker was honestly one of the most influential professors I’ve had throughout my academic life,” said Fatma Sharawy, a recent AUC grad. “He is very dedicated and passionate about what he teaches.”

Thomas Mikhail, an AUC student who went on to become Duker’s teaching assistant for almost two years, initially wasn’t excited about comparative religions at all.

“In all honesty, I took his class as a core requirement, not really having an interest in religions,” he said. “But I can say that he quickly became one of my favorite professors.”

Malak Afifi, an AUC senior, said Duker’s courses strengthened her own Muslim faith while also helping her gain new perspectives.

“He was extremely professional,” Afifi said. “Coptic, Catholic and Protestant Christians, as well as Muslims and atheists all convened for his class.” None, she added, “felt the slightest attack on or offense against their faith.”

“Truly the university has lost a valuable professor,” said Mikhail, Duker’s former teaching assistant. “I fully believe they acted wrongly with full intention that what they were doing was wrong.”

“There was a lack of transparency with the entire ordeal,” he said. “There have been no announcements to the students concerning it.”

“It seems like the university’s general strategy is to pretend it never happened.”

But Duker can’t do that.

‘They knew where I lived…’

“[W]e just need to have a quick little conversation with you away from your students. Come with us into this interrogation room.”

Duker’s troubles at AUC came to a head in November 2018, when, during his annual class field trip to various Cairo houses of worship, he was detained in a synagogue by what he estimates were about 20 men armed with machine guns, accompanied by several Hijabi women who seemed to be in command of the men. The women claimed to be from the Ministry of Antiquities, but Duker believes they were state security agents. 

“They [said they] just happened to be passing by and they thought that I was doing something wrong. But at the same time, they knew my name, they knew about the Tahers, they knew my wife’s name, and they knew I recently had a son,” Duker said. “They knew his name. They knew my phone number. They knew where I lived. So, it seemed very clear to me that they did not work,” as they had claimed, “for the Ministry of Antiquities.” 

Even though Duker said he received permission in advance from both AUC and local Jewish leaders to visit the synagogue with his class, the agents repeatedly stated that Duker was there illegally and demanded he come with them — all while denying that he was formally under arrest.

Duker recalls the commanding officer and the leader of the women playing “good cop/bad cop,” withdrawing from him to make phone calls and discuss the situation “while the other 19 guys with heavy machine guns kept me in the corner.”

“I will not be going anywhere with you unless you want to arrest me.”

The man repeatedly returned to Duker and offered that everything would work out — if he would just go with him to an “interrogation room.”

“He would come up to me and say, ‘Listen, professor, you did something very, very wrong. You made a big mistake, but we understand. You’re not Egyptian. You didn’t know what you were doing. Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Duker recalls. “‘You’re going to be fine. We’re going to let you go. It’s not a problem, but first, we just need to have a quick little conversation with you away from your students. Why don’t you just come with us? We’ll make you a cup of coffee. Come with us into this interrogation room. We’ll have you out of here in 10 minutes.’”

“Again, I would tell them: ‘No.’ That ‘I will not be going anywhere with you unless you want to arrest me.’ This went back and forth, I want to say, five, or six times.”

Duker told his students to go to a nearby cafe to wait for him in hopes of getting them to safety. While most listened to his instructions. Duker said several of his larger male students refused to leave his side, convincing the armed guards they could help translate Arabic for Duker.

Ultimately, it was those students, and the ones at the cafe, who Duker says were his heroes that day. While the incident was unfolding, the students at the cafe began texting AUC, as well as Duker’s lawyer and some of Duker’s contacts at the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department.

“They had been communicating with these people asking to help us while we were there. Then the armed officer and the intelligence woman, they were receiving phone calls from these people on the other line while we were being detained.”

After those influential calls came in, approximately 45 minutes after the ordeal began, Duker was released.

“I met my students at the cafe where they were drinking coffee and Red Bulls, and we entered and then there was a rousing standing ovation. The students were so excited and so amazed that I stood up to the state apparatus there and that I refused to submit to their intimidation.”

“We even finished the field trip,” he said.

But Duker soon felt the effects of having been in such a frightening situation.

“I was still shaking so badly from the experience with these armed individuals,” Duker said. “I tell people at the time I kind of wish I had smoked because I felt like I needed a cigarette. I don’t smoke. I find it to be a disgusting habit. But I felt I needed some sort of physical outlet to deal with the sort of nerves that I was under after that experience.” 

“I settled for drinking three or four Diet Cokes.”

Duker says despite learning of the situation quickly, AUC never reached out to see if he was alright or take a statement from him. Instead, Duker heard from his students that AUC was summoning them to meetings, asking about what Duker may have done wrong to warrant being detained. 

AUC was compiling yet another faculty misconduct probe into his actions.

Duker, on the advice of his attorney, temporarily left Cairo.

By the following spring, attempts to work things out with AUC were going nowhere. With continuing serious concerns about his safety, Duker and his family decided to leave Egypt — and Duker’s once-promising career at AUC — for good.

‘Unresolved tensions’

“I have a family to support. This is a very difficult time for us. We don’t know where we’ll be living or working, or whether I will even have a job next year.”

Duker says he is not just concerned for the tenuous state of his once tenure-track career, but for the fate of his former students. They’re left, he says, without a permanent professor to teach in a critical field at a juncture when international political discourse is growing even more unproductive.

“I think a large segment of our society has lost faith in dialogue and understanding what other people believe by actually sitting down and listening to them speak, to listen to their voices, to understand people on their terms, to walk a mile in their political, social, ethical, environmental shoes, and see how they perceive the world,” Duker said. “We’d rather explain why those people are wrong.”

“[AUC] has been a fantastic place [in the past] and it can be again.”

“That was one of the big challenges, and the thing that excited me the most about going to Egypt: To confront this lack of empathy that you see in so many quarters of the global community. Especially in terms of religious empathy in the Islamic world.”

After all he went through, he still holds out hope that, one day, an AUC chair in comparative religions will meet that challenge.

“I’m a very optimistic person,” Duker said. “[AUC] has been a fantastic place [in the past] and it can be again: Where liberal arts values can be disseminated in a part of the world that is often times quite hostile to them.”

“Through hard work and education,” Duker said, “you can make differences in peoples’ perceptions, and in the way they think, and the way that they perceive others.”

Now settling in at Mount Holyoke, Duker is mulling what’s next.

Adam Duker on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)Adam Duker on the campus of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. (Megan Haley for FIRE.)

“There’s still a lot of unresolved tensions,” Duker said. 

He’d like compensation from AUC, an apology, and a restoration of the comparative religions endowed chair — even without him at the helm. All he asks is that it be free from meddling by donors or administrators who would seek to control pedagogical choices.

“I’m very grateful to Mount Holyoke College, especially the History of Religion Department here that have taken me in and provided me with a safe place to live and teach for this next year. I’m incredibly grateful for the freedom of speech and the freedom of academic inquiry I have here. No one has interfered with any of my classes or with any of my teaching. They’ve been nothing but supportive.”

“But it’s a one-year position,” Duker said. “I have a family to support. This is a very difficult time for us. We don’t know where we’ll be living or working, or whether I will even have a job next year.” 

Duker, who said he genuinely hoped to work things out with AUC informally, is now mulling legal action for breach of contract.

“This isn’t just a three-year episode and just everything’s fine now,” Duker said. “Trauma lingers.”

Mount Holyoke administrators provided Duker and his family with health insurance, moving assistance, and housing to help him deal with the effects of what happened in Egypt. 

“The trauma caused by AUC’s sustained campaign against me didn’t just go away as soon as the plane lifted off from Cairo airport,” he said. “It is a long process. I wish I could claim to have some magic formula for alleviating it. My wife and I just continue to be kind to each other, to love our son, to do our best in our callings as academics, and to try to remember that we survived this mess together as a team.”

“But for any closure to be reached,” Duker said, “there’s still an accounting that needs to take place.”

Adam Duker is also issuing a warning for academics and students who might be like he once was, considering the opportunities schools like AUC have to offer.

“Just because you put the word ‘American’ or ‘Fulbright’ or ‘NYU’ next to the name of your institution — Fulbright University of Vietnam, The American University in Cairo, NYU Abu Dhabi — doesn’t mean they have any sort organic connection to universities or systems in the United States.”


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Schools:  Mount Holyoke College