Drinking an Ethiopian long black coffee in an Inner Sydney café hours before attending a wedding, Adam Duker recounts his fateful decision in 2016 to attend his brother’s wedding in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Professor Duker, a PhD graduate from the University Of Notre Dame, having turned down offers in the United States, had accepted a position as a professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). In the autumn of 2016, he was appointed the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair in Comparative Religions.
What was just a 45-minute flight across the Egyptian border would become a 3-year ordeal resulting in Professor Duker fleeing Cairo with his wife and young son to Australia.
Growing up with an Orthodox Jewish father and an Anglican Episcopal mother, Duker found himself comparing and contrasting the varying faiths in his home – something that taught him to have empathy for people with different points of view.
“I came to AUC to build the only non-sectarian comparative religions program in the Islamic world and because of the endowed Taher Chair, was guaranteed in my contract” said Duker, who later had the endowed chair stripped from him because he refused the demands of an “Islamic extremist”.
The Taher Chair was established in 2002, and funded by the Saudi Arabian oil executive, author, and philanthropist Abdulhadi H. Taher. The donation from the Taher family has been estimated at approximately $3.5 million US dollars, which is the largest funding for humanities in the Middle East.
Following Taher’s son Tarek’s encounter at his Malibu, Californian mansion with a “celestial being” concerned about the endowed chair, Professor Duker was requested to have his lectures pre-approved before he taught his students.
During the tense meeting with Tarek Taher and wife Jessica, Professor Duker also objected to the use of the Taher Chair to “convert students to Islam”.
The meeting with Taher was at the request of AUC President Frank Ricciardone, who later praised Professor Duker for his work as the Taher Chair.
In 2017, Professor Duker found himself at the centre of an ethics investigation that was dismissed, shortly before the AUC Provost Ehab Abdel Rahman issues an email stating stripping him of the Taher Chair without explanation.
AUC Dean Robert Switzer informs Duker he has lost the Taher Chair because of the refusal to convert his students to Islam. Professor Duker believes the action was also taken as a result of his visit to Israel in addition to his refusal to allow for external interference in his teaching materials.
A year later during the Comparative Religions Program’s annual “Sacred Spaces of Cairo” field trip visiting the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the Hanging Church, and the Sultan Hassan and al-Rifai mosques, Professor Duker was arrested by the Egyptian authorities.
Surrounded by two dozen heavily armed men, Duker encourages his students to seek refuge in a nearby café. A number of students refuse to leave, instead standing by the Professor, giving evidence to deny accusations that he had attempted to convert Muslims to Judaism.
Islam is Egypt’s official religion, and although freedom of religion is part of the Egyptian constitution, there are serious social consequences for leaving the religion. Those caught proselytizing can face serious legal penalties and persecution.
After being subjected to a 45-minute long interrogation with an officer supposedly from the Ministry of Antiquities repeatedly mentioning Taher, Professor Duker found himself without support from AUC leadership and subject to secret investigation by the university.
Cleared but still a target
Despite being eventually cleared of misconduct following a drawn-out investigation that found no evidence of the Professor of being a “a colonialist and a missionary doing harm to religious minorities in Egypt”, Duker remained the persistent target of anti-Semitic attacks from colleagues.
The AUC Senate Grievance Committee also went on to express grave concern regarding the Taher Chair at AUC. Such sentiment has also been shared by the Middle East Studies Association, whom have issued a letter to the university stating that “the cancellation of the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair by the donor’s son and the subsequent repurposing of the donation appear highly irregular”.
Violation of freedom
Duker, who will formally resign from the university in October describes the violation of his academic freedom and the loss of his comparative religions program as not just impacted on himself but also his students.
“Having a diversity of thought is essential to a free society”, the Professor sighs as he expresses sadness about the reality that a US funded university would surrender basic freedoms on its campus.
Reflecting on the traumatic experience of being arrested at gunpoint in Cairo, Duker has been grateful for the assistance he has received from Scholars At Risk, an organisation promoting academic freedom.
Role of prayer
But ultimately, he believes that his ability to flee Egypt with wife who is also an academic and be led by their young son Caleb onto the plane is a sign that “God had come through for us”. Coincidentally or perhaps providentially Caleb was one of the Israelites that led Israel into the Promised Land after they left Egypt in Exodus.
Being “powered by prayer” says Duker is what has helped him get through his recent hardships and encouraged him to not to give up on his academic career.
Connection to Australia
During his extended layover in Sydney, Duker caught an interest in news headlines concerning religious freedom and academic freedom in Australia, namely the sacking of Israel Folau for his social media comments.
Duker went on to express the importance of “getting religion right”, noting that the improper understanding of Christianity such as in the Israel Folau controversy with the misrepresentation of a Christian ethic as a fundamental doctrine of the faith, has ultimately been a disservice to everyone.
However, in support of free expression, Duker maintained that it was well within Folau’s right to express such version of belief and that those opposed to his beliefs should have engaged in “vigorous debates” rather than “mixing theology with social justice”.
Again, returning to his comparative religion lectures, Duker reiterates that “all religions are not the same”, pointing to the importance of allowing students to compare and contrast each religion for its differences.
Likewise, the study of western civilisation, Duker believes, should be similar to that of looking into how “Christianity is different from Islam [as well as] Judaism” despite all three religions having a shared Abrahamic root.
The study of one subject is “not the denigration of another” and that the crux of a free society as Duker puts it should be “why should we believe that this is a good commandment?”
Adam Duker has returned to the United States and is considering legal action against the University for breach of contract, but has ruled out returning to Egypt for fear of his life.
This article was first published in Christian Today Australia on Thursday 1 August 2019