Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo, where at an early age his Sufi Muslim parents enrolled him in a conservative school, starting him on his trajectory to expertise in Islamic Studies. Ibrahim thrived in this environment, rising to the top of his class in elementary and high school, and then later becoming the top student in his B.A. Azhar University cohort. After a stint as a journalist—he became the Cairo correspondent for the Middle East Times and later a reporter for an Arabic-language newspaper—Ibrahim did his doctoral studies in the U.S., after which, in 2012, he was hired as a tenure-track specialist in Islamic Law at McGill’s IIS.
As the first person in his family to receive a BA (let alone a PhD and a number of prestigious appointments), his successes were a source of enormous pride to his parents. Indeed, for many in his extended family’s home village, Ibrahim was an inspiration, even a type of hero, albeit soon to become a tragic one.
In the spring of 2014, Ibrahim (then in his mid-thirties) became romantically involved with one of his former students, 20-year old MG. McGill did not have a policy regarding professor-student relations, and Ibrahim was aware that it didn’t. MG was no longer Ibrahim’s student; therefore, the relationship was, he felt, his private business. Nevertheless, the relationship could not have been a secret in the relatively small, fishbowl atmosphere of the IIS.
Early in their relationship, Ibrahim hired MG as a Research Assistant. Since MG was paid the same wage as other RAs, and did the work competently, he was for a time able to rationalize the conflict of interest.But discomfort persisted and by mutual accord the assistantship ended in September. The relationship continued until April 2015, when Ibrahim broke it off.
After the breakup, which MG seemed to accept but, according to Ibrahim, with covert expressions of resistance (texts, emails emanating ambiguity as to their relationship status), she began to regard herself as a victim of a power imbalance. She shared her sense of injury with two feminist IIS professors, with whom she was on friendly terms. They took up her grievance with alacrity.
In early June 2015, withholding the subject matter, then IIS director Rula Abisaab asked for a conference Skype meeting with Ibrahim, which materialized on June 9. Four members of the IIS told Ibrahim his relationship with MG had created a “toxic environment” at the Institute. This came as a shock to Ibrahim, but he took it at face value, and made an individual apology tour of the department. Only two people declined to meet with him, both of whom would later be identified in student testimonials as vocal detractors.
Rumours flew within the McGill community and then in September, an anonymously authored article appeared in the McGill Daily, entitled “Let’s Talk about Teacher.” The particulars make it clear the writer is MG, describing her relationship with Ibrahim. The article portrays Ibrahim as a serial abuser of women who is willing to use his authority for sexual gain. Ibrahim categorically rejects MG’s characterization of the relationship, and asserts the article is replete with falsehoods. MG, he told me, was a confident and intelligent woman with full agency who had, in fact, initiated the relationship.
Because it was the spark that ignited a forest fire, I spoke to Ibrahim at some length about his relationship with MG. Did he not see that the optics were sketchy? In fact, he didn’t. He told me that if McGill had had a policy proscribing professor-student relationships, he would have respected it. But he saw nothing morally wrong in it. In Egypt, he said, marriages with former students, even with a 10 or 15-year age disparity, are not frowned upon. He confessed that up until this happened to him, he had been “ignorant of that feminist discourse,” meaning the preoccupation with power imbalances. With time to reflect, Ibrahim has realized that becoming involved with any student was an ill-judged decision.
Not only had there been no policy forbidding student-professor relationships at the time Ibrahim became romantically involved with MG, there was still no policy in place against them when he was denied tenure. (As I write, in what might be called a “barn-door” flurry of responsible stewardship, McGill is now in the process of putting such a policy into place.)
Here we need to be absolutely clear: the conflict of interest arising from his employment of MG was unethical. But the important thing to understand for this story is that, at the time, the university did not consider it a serious infraction meriting a career-ending outcome, particularly since Ibrahim was not the only member of the institute to run afoul of the same issue. There are four couples at the IIS; several have been involved in conflicts of interest of this kind, as have many other couples in other departments.
In September 2016, Ibrahim was penalized by the university—not for the conflict itself, but for failing to disclose the conflict in writing (which he learned after the fact was de rigeur), although he had apologized for it orally. The conflict was not adduced as a reason for denial of tenure. (In fact, it couldn’t be, given the strict guidelines for tenure assessment, which are constrained to three areas: scholarship, pedagogy and service to the academic and greater community.)
In retrospect, Ibrahim came to see the kerfuffle over his affair with MG, and the hyper-inflated allegations of his mobbing that arose from it, as a smokescreen for the real issue: smoldering resentment over his pedagogy—perceived as politically incorrect by a minority of students and faculty alike—in relation to the teaching of contentious issues in Islamic law. That is to say, he did not see his role as an apologist for historical ideas and processes that may have nothing to do with Islam itself as a religion. Rather, he considered himself a teacher of law comparable to some other Canadian teacher of, say, constitutional law. If certain texts were problematic—well, that was something to discuss, not suppress. He knew other professors took a different approach, but did not imagine the difference would spill over into open hostility.