Seventeen years ago, a Saudi billionaire endowed a chair in comparative religion at the American University in Cairo to promote religious tolerance and peace through knowledge.
Over the past two years, though, the donor’s son allegedly pressured the professor who held the chair to give preference to Islam over other religions, or to stop teaching them at all. After its own discussions with the donor’s son, the university canceled the named professorship completely and redirected the endowment to scholarships.
The incident has set off a renewed debate over academic freedom—and whether the elimination of the chair constitutes a violation of it—and over how much control a university should allow donors to have over endowed chairs.
Even faculty members within AUC disagree on those questions. A University Senate panel concluded that the incident amounted to donor interference and that the university had infringed the professor’s academic freedom. But the chair of the department of history, which held the chair, said academic freedom was never at stake in the dispute.
The End of a Named Chair in Comparative Religion
Supported by a gift estimated at over $3.5 million, the Abdulhadi H. Taher Professorship in Comparative Religion was reportedly the largest private endowment for the humanities in the Arabic-speaking world. It was established in 2002 by Saudi billionaire Abdulhadi H. Taher, who died in 2013. A former professor who held the chair described its purpose as “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,” according to AUC’s website.
Tarek Taher, the donor’s son, however, believed the professorship, as it was being conducted in recent years, was violating the spirit of the endowment as his father intended, according to emails reviewed by Al-Fanar Media. He wanted his father’s name removed from the professorship and the chair canceled. A request for comment from Taher was not answered.
The university confirmed that it had made that change.
“While AUC kept the professor, courses and program unchanged and unrestricted, it agreed with the deceased donor’s son to remove his father’s name from the chair and re-direct his bequest to support unrestricted scholarships for outstanding students who are not otherwise able to attend AUC,” the university said in an email to Al-Fanar Media.
Adam Duker, however, the scholar who held the endowed chair since July 2016, protested the university’s decision to dissolve the chair and abolish the title awarded to him as a violation of his contract and an abuse of his academic freedom.
Duker, a historian of religion specializing in religious violence and confessional identity in late medieval and early modern Europe, was the fifth academic to hold the professorship. He taught a “Religions of the World” survey course at the university, lecturing on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Duker said he was pressured to change his instruction following a January 2017 meeting with Taher at the donor’s home in Malibu, California, over the latter’s concerns about how the course was taught to a class made up mainly of Muslim students.
According to email correspondence between Taher and Duker in January 2017, emails from Duker to university officials, and Duker’s recollections, Duker said Taher wanted to pre-approve lectures and course materials and wanted the professor to encourage his non-Muslim students to convert to Islam. He also said Taher wanted the program to promote Islam over other religions, teach other faiths as if they were “incorrect,” and asked Duker to refrain from teaching about non-Abrahamic religions such as Buddhism altogether. Meanwhile, he objected to Duker’s use of the Oxford translation of the Qur’an, which uses the word English “God” instead of the Arabic “Allah.”
Also, Taher wanted the program to have more autonomy and be governed by a partially independent advisory board made up of AUC officials, Taher himself, his wife Jessica, Duker and an outside scholar, according to an email on the California meeting from Duker to university officials dated January 24, 2017.
Explaining his motivations, Taher said in an email to Duker on January 17, 2017, “I am only looking for the best interest of my father’s professorship and make sure it is in line with his vision.”