Mobbed: Race and Gender Politics on McGill Campus

I will not speak here about the two individuals against whom I filed a defamation lawsuit in June 2018. They are not referred to in this article.

I write to you today about my experience of being ‘mobbed’ at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. People involved in the mobbing had a mix of motivations: some thought they were fighting for gender justice (a case of the tyranny of good intentions), while others used the discourse of a worthy cause to target a workplace rival. It is of course the latter group that is more troubling. They weaponized discourses of gender justice, of which I am an ally, spreading false claims intended to destroy my career. My race played an essential role in making their rumors believable, leading ultimately to my denial of tenure by the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. Instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue, university administrators have scapegoated me, in a manner typical of the corporate university. Sadly, racialized junior faculty members at McGill do not even have a union they can turn to for solidarity.

To understand my story, you must know a little about me. I grew up in a Sufi family in a Cairo working-class neighborhood. My parents enrolled me at a young age in an Azhar school, a conservative Muslim institution with a medieval curriculum. My exposure at an early age to questions of religious identity and politics at al-Azhar contributed to my interest in issues of human rights. Being the top student in elementary and high schools, my family assumed that I would go to medical school, but to everyone’s shock, I made the unusual move of going into the humanities despite my high grades. When I became the top student in my Azhar University cohort and was thus able to secure a position as a lecturer at al-Azhar University, my family were ecstatic. They wanted me to stay at al-Azhar for my graduate studies, but I chose to pursue my PhD at Georgetown University in the US. After finishing a PhD degree, I secured a position as an assistant professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. My successes were a source of pride for my family and in fact for people in my family’s village since I belong to the first generation in my family to receive a BA, let alone a PhD.

A fateful relationship

In August 2012, I moved to Montreal to take an assistant professor position at McGill University. During orientation, a young professor asked about student-professor relationships and was told that McGill had no policy against such relationships. I did not think of it much. In fact, I did not even understand the significance of the question because in my mind I thought: What is the University’s business when adults fall in love and decide to be in a relationship? (I have since then changed my position and I wish I had known then what I know now).

In Spring 2014, a student in my department (hereafter MG) and I developed feelings for one another. She had taken an elective class with me in 2013 and was my RA (Research Assistant) in early 2014. She asked me out. I admired her humor, activism, strong opinions and even her rage at systemic inequalities. She was one year from graduating, and I thought since she was not in my field (she studied literature), there was no possibility of work overlap. We started our relationship at a time when she was neither my student nor my research assistant. Neither of us thought of our relationship as unethical or wrong in anyway. When we started dating, I said to her that if she ever decided to take one of my classes, I would not continue to date her. She responded cheekily by saying, “No offense, but I don’t find Islamic law all that interesting.” To me, that was the line. I was not familiar with the discourse of power differential and certainly never thought that when a woman asked someone out, people could later claim that she had no agency to do so.

During our relationship, I received major grants and was looking to hire a large number of research assistants, I ended up hiring four but I needed more. MG offered to be my RA as well. The source of my discomfort with this idea was that it might appear to outsiders that I favored her because she was my girlfriend. Coming from Egypt where nepotism is a pervasive problem, this was the only thing that crossed my mind. To convince me, she reasoned that she would be losing an opportunity simply because we were together which would not be fair to her. True. The only reason that I initially resisted hiring her as an RA was because of our relationship. She insisted that she had agency and that she wanted to do the job. I hired her (a mistake I realize in hindsight and it was the first and last time I was ever in such a conflict of interest). Of course, she was paid the exact same amount for the same work as everyone else. The minimum wage in Quebec at the time was C$10.35 per hour and the hourly rate for the position was C$14. She and I knew that there was no nepotism whatsoever. Of course, it never crossed my mind that someone might one day claim that she was “pressured” to stay in the relationship because of her RA employment whose wages overall amounted to C$1500. The last time she was paid as my research assistant was on 27, September 2014 while the relationship continued until April 2015. Thus for almost 7 months we had no professional connection whatsoever. During these seven months and as her graduation was approaching, she seemed to have a lot of anxiety about our future. She wanted to continue the relationship long distance but I did not want that because I had just ended a long distance relationship months earlier. I was not ready to do it again. She was unhappy with my decision.

During our relationship, I shared with MG my frustration with a particular situation of bullying at the Institute of Islamic Studies in 2014–2015. On two different occasions, I overheard a junior professor sobbing in her office after conversations with a senior, tenured professor. The junior professor subsequently quit McGill and so did her husband. I shared my observations with MG. I trusted her. She was my confidant and my girlfriend. MG also observed me deal with a tense situation with a senior, tenured professor over a work-related issue. In fact, having witnessed the bullying of the junior faculty member into leaving McGill, I vividly remember telling MG: “I really hope I will never be in a situation where they turn against me.” As I would learn later, when our relationship soured, she made sure to make my concern a reality.

On April 15, 2015 I left Montreal to go on a summer research trip in Egypt. MG seemed unaffected by our long distance disagreement. A few days before I left, she wrote: “I’m gunna try my luck-are you free now/later tonight?” Two days before I left on April 15, for instance, she sent me the following text message on my phone: “Hey, I was thinking if you get home not too late tonight maybe I could stay over?…and no worries if not, I’ll just come over tomorrow :)” The day before my flight, she wrote “Hey, are you heading back soon? I want to grab lunch and I figured I could pick something up for you too if you’re going to be back soon. I responded, “I’ll be back in about 35 mins.” She said, “I’m gunna get stuff from this Latino market that I like.”

She was weeks from graduating and moving to Egypt to pursue graduate studies. Her unusual choice for Egypt especially as an American given Egypt’s messy and unfortunate transition following the 2011 Revolution seemed odd. But I was supportive even though I disagreed with her choice at the time. On April 26, 2015, while I was on a research trip in Egypt, I received an email from MG which read: “I have a question-were you seeing or did you see anyone else this semester while we were involved?” I asked about the reason for her question, she responded: “I heard a student talking about how they saw you holding hands with someone who looked to be undergraduate-age and kissing in public in the Mile End this winter, around January.” In early May, a few days after MG’s email, we had a Skype conversation. At the time, she said that her camera did not work, so we only used the sound on Skype. As it would be claimed to me later, two professors were in the room with her during our Skype conversation. During our conservation, MG repeated the same things that she had heard and told me not to talk to her again. That was the last time I spoke with her.

On June 2, 2015, the 2015–2016 Institute Director, Prof. Rula Abisaab, sent me an email asking for a Skype meeting. When I asked about the subject, she did not provide an answer. On June 9, I had a Skype meeting with four members of the Institute of Islamic Studies. They told me that they knew about the relationship and that they thought it was a bad idea to have a relationship with someone at the Institute because it created a “toxic environment.” I apologized and assured them that she was not my student during our relationship and that I would never get involved with anyone at the Institute again.

As I would learn later, the outgoing director of the Institute in May 2015 checked with the administration and was told that there is nothing in the regulations against student-professor relationships. The director was also advised to ask me to file a conflict of interest form since MG was my RA during part of the relationship. But this never happened because, as I was informed later, this solution was not accepted by some members of the senior faculty who thought that disclosing the conflict of interest was insufficient and that McGill should ban such relationships altogether. The other opposing position was that since such relationships are not against the regulations, senior faculty members have no business telling another faculty member how to conduct his private life.

After the Skype meeting, I determined never again to get involved with someone at McGill. One senior, tenured professor allegedly co-authored an anonymous letter with MG for the student newspaper in September 2015. The narrative was filled with graphic falsehoods. They may have genuinely wanted to push for a ban on those relationships, but the way they went about it was to demonize me. In March 2016, an article written by a student whom I do not know described the relationship as “sexual harassment.” The result of this false publicity was that people who knew nothing or little about me heard that I was accused of sexual harassment or something along those lines. Over time, it developed into a classic case of workplace mobbing, a sociological phenomenon of organized group bullying that is particularly severe in universities. Everything I did began to be understood and remembered in a new light. Even my saying hi or good morning to people in the corridor of my office was itself brought under new scrutiny. Around the same time of the March 2016 article, the Director of the Institute gave a report to the Dean about the relationship, but I have yet to see what was contained in that report. With all the pressure on the University, I was punished in September 2016 for failure to disclose the conflict of interest. Incidentally, eight people at the Institute (4 couples) have been in conflict of interest at various times, and it is claimed that not everyone files these conflict of interest forms, though of course their relationships are known to members of the Institute.

I took responsibility for my failure to exercise due diligence and disclose the relationship to the University. I accepted that I was bound to follow the rules, even where others did not. I accepted that my ignorance of the necessity of filing a conflict of interest disclosure form, though genuine, was no excuse. At this point, I concluded (and I had shared this view with the McGill administration in April 2016) that they should issue a policy banning student-professor relationships. In November 2016, subsequent to the relationship which you would recall took place in 2014–2015, the University issued some new policies that still fall short. I think McGill should follow the lead of US institutions such as Yale and Harvard by adopting a clear ban on such relationships, especially since these relationships are quite common on McGill campus. At any rate, after the punishment I received in September 2016 for failure to disclose a conflict of interest, I was finally happy again after one and a half years of depression. The nightmare was finally over, or so it seemed for a while until my tenure approached.

The campaign against my tenure (2017–2018)

In March 2017, some students started sending petitions against my tenure citing “inappropriate behavior.” Other students were horrified by what they considered to be bullying of a junior faculty member but they were too scared to oppose the campaign lest they be branded apologists for sexual predators. They quietly disagreed with the mobbing and only shared their views to their closest confidantes. Some whom I had never met came knocking on my door to offer their support. Some told me about professors who were participating in the campaign and provided evidence. The campaign was very well-organized: armed with good knowledge of the tenure process, the key players in that process, and the best times to apply pressure on the key players as the process unfolded. The pressure worked. The McGill administration approached me in May of 2017 with an offer in exchange for my resignation. I refused the offer without hesitation.

In September 2017, stickers appeared in women’s washrooms and elevators on campus calling me a sexual predator and soliciting testimonies. A Facebook page called “zero tolerance” was set up to take “allegations” against me. The Facebook group said that they were behind the stickers to bring forward allegations. One of the stickers read, “Have you had bad experiences with Prof. Ahmed F. Ibrahim? You are not alone. He is up for tenure this year. The time to act is now… Have a testimony?” followed by a contact email for “testimonies.” Another version read, “You are not alone in your fight against sexualized violence…Prof. Ahmed F. Ibrahim — a sexual predator and professor is up for tenure this year. The time to act is now.” Two student newspaper articles about the stickers were written, publishing one of the stickers but scratching out my name in the student newspaper.

One of version of the stickers.

I contacted the same student newspaper in August 2018 to publish a version of the text you are reading as a response to the false allegations in their articles. They refused to publish it.

Another version

The stickers and the articles started two months before the first meeting of my tenure committee, which took place in November 2017. The articles created the sense that there were allegations of sexual violence and harassment against me that were not properly handled by the University. I have never committed any act of sexual harassment or sexual violence. In fact, no complaints of any such wrongdoing were ever made against me. The stickers accused me by name, and the articles specified that this professor was at the Institute of Islamic Studies and was up for tenure. I became known on campus as a sexual predator without having any opportunity to defend myself. I was also anonymously accused of being prejudiced against people of color. Petitions and emails were sent to key players in the tenure process: the new Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, Prof. Robert Wisnovsky, the Dean of Arts, the Provost and the Principal. It was an unnecessary headache and media nightmare for the Institute and the administration, which was obviously bad news for my tenure. Because no actual complaints had been brought against me, and because no one had presented any actual evidence, the accusations were never formally brought into the tenure process. Still, practically every person who voted on my tenure was exposed to the rumors in some form, in some cases through petitions and emails. Ironically, my tormentors were protected by the very absence of a complaint, which meant that there was no forum in which I could defend myself.

Another version of the stickers

As rumors continued to circulate, students not knowing that no complaint had been filed against me, grew furious at the lack of official response from the McGill administration. Because of my strong research, teaching and service records, they feared that I would get tenure. Their certainty of my guilt, despite the lack of evidence was due in no small part to racism, some implicit and some explicit. The fact that I am a brown man, who is also 6ft 4, made it more believable. Students reported hearing stereotypes about Arabs or North Africans being sexual predators stated in reference to me, while elsewhere I was told that my “physical stature” scares and intimidates students when I walk in hallways. I doubt that these rumors and fears would have achieved the same level of vitriol had I looked different. According to the 2016 Essimu report, about 25% of cases of sexual violence on Quebec campuses are committed by professors. According to a 2010 CAUT report, visible minority university teachers make up only about 17% of the profession. Yet I know of no white professor at McGill who was the target of such a campaign to derail their career.

Extremism thrives when there is injustice. And it is the genuine injustice to which women have been subjected that is behind the broad support that the #Metoo movement has won. The movement has forced people to listen to the voices of women which had been muted for too long. Although the process of listening, understanding, repairing and moving forward is far from over, I maintain that we should remain cognizant of the cooptation of feminist discourses to fit the established order and the magnification of other oppressions. This ideological extremism creates new injustices. In my case, I was unfairly demonized. My colleagues were afraid to speak out against the bullying. It was black or white: you are with us or against us. What the mostly privileged white students who threw themselves behind my ousting did not realize is that some professors may not have been genuinely motivated by the noble fight against sexual violence. Some were indeed driven by petty professional rivalries. These lies, and the campaign of mobbing have ruined my career. These mostly privileged white activists have no idea what sacrifices I have had to make for that career, and how many of my family members rely on my salary and particularly the damaging impact of the public campaign on my children.

Sadly, it is true that many cases of sexual violence go unpunished. I, however, have never harassed anyone by word or deed. This is not who I am. On the contrary, I personally experienced how damaging sexual harassment can be when my ex-wife and I lived in Cairo. The way in which the catcalls, the touches, the grabs and the rest of it eroded her sense of security was painful to observe, and colored many aspects of our life. When MG decided to move to Egypt, I tried to prepare her to cope with this unfortunate aspect of urban life in Cairo, and advised her about the areas of the city where she would be most safe from this type of abuse. I have demonstrated in Egypt against sexual harassment, and have supported efforts to clarify and implement existing laws to protect women against sexual harassment. In 2014, I was very pleased that our efforts contributed to the passage of tougher anti-sexual harassment laws by the Egyptian parliament, though much remains to be desired with respect to better implementation and public awareness.

I have only recently got a sense of the rumors that provided fuel for the rage for so long. A former Institute student who was a friend of MG and who is currently a PhD candidate at Harvard University, wrote on her Facebook in July 2018: “He’s the same man who touches women’s thighs when they go to his office hours, and grabs their *** when they make photocopies.” I could see many colleagues in my small field shocked and understandably horrified by the allegations. When these colleagues asked for more concrete information, she publicly claimed that I have been accused “over 50 times of inappropriate behavior and full on assault” and asserted that “This isn’t #metoo gossip this is REAL LIFE and it’s been happening in our very field for years. I have seen it and experienced it QUITE tangibly.” It was unclear whether she meant to insinuate that she has been subjected to harassment and assault by me which would be patently false or by people in the field. I have no idea whether she simply made this up, or if this type of misinformation entered the rumor mill through anonymous messages from God knows who to Zero Tolerance.

­­­

I am considering how I could bring this person to justice, but it is a no-win situation. If I do, then I am “silencing victims” and if I do not it is an “admission of guilt.” Perhaps this person truly believes those things. Perhaps she thinks she is fighting for justice by destroying the career of a person she perceives to be a sexual predator. I have not done the things she mentions. I have no reason to believe she is purposefully trying to injure me, and must assume that she simply does not know that the accusations she has heard are fabrications, and that she is treating rumors as fact. I repeat my request to the university to open an investigation into these rumors, instead of the arbitrary use of the tenure process.

I write this as I see a career that I have made many sacrifices to build crumble. The Institute of Islamic Studies and the McGill administration appear to have decided that from a PR perspective it is better to get rid of me through the tenure review (of which I will speak little here to save it for the book) rather than to follow due process. To this day, it is hard for me to believe that I was denied tenure. Despite a stellar record of research, teaching and service by any objective measure, I am the first person in the 66-year history of the Institute of Islamic Studies to be denied tenure. I am one of a tiny minority of people who are denied tenure at McGill, where the tenure rate is over 90%. I sometimes have to tell myself in a loud voice: “They have denied me tenure” so that I am able to process it.

The feeling of injustice is still very raw. One colleague claims to be a person of ethics, propriety, and a strict adherence to rules and regulations, despite having purposefully and unethically brought prejudice and insinuation to the assessment of my professional performance in order to eclipse the statistical and documentary evidence of my academic performance. Everyone who voted against my tenure was White, except for one person; everyone who voted for my tenure was a person of color except for one person. According to the Academic Women’s Association at the University of Alberta, 96 percent of leadership positions at Canada’s 15 research-intensive universities were held by white men and women in 2016. It is a bitter irony that those who led the campaign against my tenure talk of justice, and demolishing hierarchies, all while maintaining their narrow, material and career interests at all costs.

Perhaps I should have written this much earlier. My well-meaning friends and colleagues advised me to keep my head down and ignore the rumors. I think my story with its many twists can help us think through some of the issues we encounter on campus today. McGill has a history of serious mobbing. McGill University Professor, Justine Sergent, was undermined by anonymous accusations of research misconduct that eventually drove her to commit suicide in 1994. Despite the emotional, financial and professional damage that this campaign of bullying has presented, I have no intention of letting it destroy me. Rather, I hope that by sharing my story, I will invite those who are genuinely interested in social justice into a more nuanced conversation that takes a hard look at the intersections of sexual, racial and religious identity politics on university campuses. I hope that this will be a call for the kind of attention to nuance that is supposed to be the hallmark of the academy, in the face of extremist thinking. I will continue to fight for justice and to clear my name.

Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim is assistant professor of Islamic law at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He is the author of Pragmatism in Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (Syracuse University Press, 2015), and Child Custody in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice in Egypt since the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He can be reached at afekry@gmail.com.