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McGill professor sues peers for defamation

On June 22, Professor Ahmed Ibrahim from McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) took action against the allegations of sexual misconduct levied against him by filing a defamation lawsuit. The defendants in Ibrahim’s case are Sarah Abdelshamy, a student in the World Islamic and Middle East Studies (WIMES) department and Professor Pasha Khan, an assistant professor at the IIS. The lawsuit requests a total of $600,000 in claims.

The suit’s filing closely follows McGill’s decision to deny Ibrahim tenure, meaning that he will have to leave McGill when his current contract expires. Ibrahim asserts that future employment options seem grim, given his apparent reputation. He unequivocally denies engaging in sexual misconduct, as his past relationship with a student from 2014 to 2015 was before McGill recognized professor-student relationships as an abuse of authority.

Allegations of Ibrahim’s behaviour first surfaced in 2015, when The McGill Daily published an anonymously-penned article titled Let’s Talk About Teacher. The article, written by a McGill student, recounts the relationship they engaged in with a professor for over a year. According to a statement made by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) regarding Ibrahim’s lawsuit, the article is widely recognized as being about him.

“What Ibrahim has been accused of, in different contexts and over time, is essentially using his position of power as a respected academic and a professor to pursue, basically, sexual relationships with students,” Marina Cupido, former Daily managing editor and current SSMU VP External, said.

During the 2016-17 academic year, the World Islamic and Middle East Studies Student Association (WIMESSA) began their efforts to halt Ibrahim’s tenure. WIMESSA voiced its concerns about allegations of Ibrahim’s sexual misconduct in a letter to Dr. Robert Wisnovsky, then director of the IIS.

“Many students, particularly women, are uncomfortable and reluctant to take courses with Ibrahim because of his history of inappropriate behaviour,” WIMESSA wrote in their letter to Wisnovsky. “They feel like they are at risk of sexual harassment and are wary about his definition of personal boundaries.”

In Feb. 2017, Abdelshamy wrote an article for the Daily criticizing Ibrahim for his approach to the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting in class. Although the article does not mention Ibrahim by name, Abdelshamy publicly conversed with him about the issue in their class’ Facebook page. Later, at the end of the Winter 2017 semester, WIMES students were invited to discuss the administration’s role in enforcing McGill’s Policy Against Sexual Violence, where Abdelshamy allegedly made accusations against Ibrahim.

“Students were specifically asked not to name anyone, as McGill has confidentiality agreements with its professors,” Ibrahim’s lawsuit reads. “Despite this, Ms. Abdelshamy called Prof. Ibrahim a rapist and accused him of being protected because of his ‘conditioning tactics.’”

In Fall 2017, an anonymous student group called Zero Tolerance McGill put stickers in bathrooms on campus, labelling Ibrahim as an “abusive professor” and calling for students to email their testimonies to them.

The lawsuit claims that Abdelshamy is very likely responsible for Zero Tolerance’s stickers. Former SSMU VP External Connor Spencer disagrees, stating that it was a collective action by other students acting in solidarity with Islamic Studies students.

“There have been years of mobilization within Islamic Studies from various students who have remained largely anonymous against Ibrahim and I think Sarah was one of the first people to put her name to something,” Spencer said. “When the stickers went up, I think he automatically responded to the one name he had of a student who was visibly upset with how he taught even though it was for a completely different reason.”

After news of Ibrahim’s lawsuit was made public, SSMU released a statement condemning his actions and blaming his escalation on McGill’s hesitance to enforce procedures.

“The SSMU Executive team condemns this lawsuit in the strongest terms,” SSMU wrote in their statement. “It is blatant intimidation in response to the ability of students to speak out and protect each other from sexual violence when our institution has failed us repeatedly.”

McGill opted not to comment on the case itself or its tenure decision. Meanwhile, although its Policy Against Sexual Violence suggests that professor-student relationships constitute an abuse of authority, the administration also released a memorandum in May which outlines how intimate relationships between staff and students should be properly conducted.

In an interview with The McGill Tribune Ibrahim’s lawyer, Julius Grey, disagreed with prohibitions on hierarchical relationships.

I think [SSMU] always takes one side and they don’t really consider the view of the other side,” Grey said. “They seem to think that there’s never any consent given, which is obviously nonsensical.”

Grey believes that unproven accusations are too readily believed and, subsequently, careers and reputations are unjustly ruined.

In general, McGill and other institutions, UQAM, U de M, Harvard, etcetera, should get a little bit of backbone and say no to accusers,” Grey said. “Not unless there’s something that can actually be proven and punished in a court of law.”

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One Comment

  1. This has become an international news story with the recent article in Quillette:

    It is disgusting what is being done to Professor Ibrahim, and unconscionable that a college will let a student (Sarah Abdelshamy) whip up a mob and destroy someone’s life because she simply does not agree with his views on a topic.

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