John Milton, Liberty and Arab Academics: The Case of Mona Prince


Satan Exulting Over Eve, by William Blake (c.1795). Reproduced under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 licence, via Tate.

An Egyptian academic, Dr Mona Prince, was recently accused by her university of ‘calling for the glorification of Satan’ after she taught John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Sharihan Al-Akhras studies the work of Milton, who advocated liberty and opposed censorship. She interviewed Dr Prince to explore the academic restrictions she is currently facing.

As I contemplate the best approach to writing this article, the Egyptian academic, Dr Mona Prince, will be in the midst of a disciplinary hearing, taking place on the 28th of August 2017, at Suez University, Egypt. The reason for this formal disciplinary meeting is to discuss the academic transgressions Dr Prince has allegedly committed, including: ‘divergence from the scientific description of [her] academic courses’, ‘spreading destructive ideas’ and attributing ‘falsehoods’ and ‘oppression to the person of God, the just king’ and ‘for calling for the glorification of Satan’, as the University’s initial report, shared with me by Prince, has unequivocally stated.

These allegations come after a six month investigation, following the suspension of Dr Prince in February 2017, as a result of discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost in one of her lectures. Despite her suspension, members of staff – at her University – continued to express their disapproval in the way ‘she conducted herself’ on campus and in public. In fact, Dr Prince has informed us that it was the case that some University staff members began to download and share content (pictures, videos and written material) from her Facebook page to target her reputation, as an academic, who is expected to uphold a certain image for the public. And after this six month investigation, Dr Prince is finally facing her disciplinary hearing.

While Dr Prince believes the University has targeted her for years on end because of her ‘liberal’ lifestyle, it was discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost that pushed the University to finally conduct its formal investigation. By discussing the characters of God and Satan, as described in Milton’s epic poem, the University – according to Prince – perceived Prince’s attitudes indicative of a clear distortion of the image of God ‘the King’ with an unacceptable ‘glorification’ of Satan. It was also the case that The Telegraph covered the incident under the title: ‘Egyptian Academic Accused of “Glorifying Satan” after Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost’.

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Dr Prince, would you like to comment on your suspension? What is the reason in your opinion?

This is not the first time I face allegations of misconduct and disrespecting tradition. In fact, I have been facing similar accusations ever since the 2011 revolution. I believe the main reason is that a large number of faculty members, whom I won’t directly name here, along with the department, follow a socially conservative policy.

I would attempt to reinvent outdated teaching methods, and allow students to speak freely and discuss controversial topics related to modern-day Egyptian society, such as interreligious (Christian-Muslim) relations, sexual harassment…etc. The general academic approach at my University, however, imposed outdated teaching techniques; there was no focus on developing creativity, improving critical thinking skills or fostering an environment that supports scientific analysis and methodology. On the contrary, students are not allowed to discuss their ideas freely. They are dictated what to learn and what to reproduce in the exams. Moreover, plagiarism would go unnoticed while copying and pasting internet content has become a common practice.

It is also the case that many students have been forced to purchase material that was copied by the letter from the internet, as prepared by numerous members of staff; it seems to me that  financial gain may be taking precedence here. Such prepared books would cost much more than books approved and suggested, by the faculty, to the students in the formal curriculum. It is surprising to me that discussing a text by Milton would be received with accusations of academic wrongdoings while actual transgressions as such would go unchallenged.

Do you believe that your novel teaching methods had to do with the beginning of personal attacks directed your way?

Yes. Everything I have uploaded online and on social media, including Facebook content, has been subsequently downloaded, saved and used against me to provoke students and colleagues; pictures of myself at the beach, out with friends, and even videos of myself dancing in my private farm, were shared in tabloid websites and TV stations in an attempt to attach a negative image to my person. Thanks to me, Egyptian Media began to genuinely discuss whether a public figure even has the right to upload personal content online [laughs]. I have lost all feelings of privacy and began to receive verbal attacks, as well as threats. Life quickly became really difficult. At a certain point, the University itself stated that it cannot guarantee my safety if I return to campus. I am forever grateful for two of my students who accompanied me for an entire day to ensure my safety.

It is a shame indeed. I believe my job as a University academic is one thing and my personal life is another. I am not ashamed of my lifestyle. I am an Egyptian, and I invite you and your readers to visit Egyptian temples where you will see love of music, dance, art and life celebrated in ancient Egypt.

A feast for Nebamun, detail from the top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun in the British Museum

A Feast for Nebamun (part of the top half), by Jon Bodsworth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk a little bit more about Milton. The Telegraph covered your suspension, linking it with teaching Paradise Lost. Would you explain to our readers how this relates to your challenges as an academic to-date?

Unfortunately, it seems that my University is not familiar with John Milton, the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost. They are not familiar with what he stood for, his defence of liberty and the discussion of all ideas, including ‘bad’ ones:

Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably … It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill.

– John Milton, Areopagitica

These are some of the values I attempted to introduce to students. Of course, the aim was not to change anyone’s values, beliefs or principles, but to enrich the literary reception of this text by my students, through considering multiple literary angles of analysis. This, however, was not received well by the University administration. A senior academic I spoke to did not see value in discussing controversial texts. Even before discussing Milton, I faced trouble for teaching Animal Farm. They prefer to follow a more tedious approach where texts are not approached with interest or depth, but simply with superficial coverage. The excuse is that such discussions may offend the religious feelings of students (both Christians and Muslims), yet the majority of students reject this policy and prefer to gain from challenging discussions, where their differences of opinions are heard and challenged.

Would it be possible to discuss your approach to teaching Milton in more detail? What were the consequences of discussing this text?

I did not even dedicate an entire module to Milton. It was merely one lecture for a module titled: English History. That specific lecture was called ‘the age of Milton’. As you probably know, Paradise lost is considered his most important work. Therefore, I intended to give it the attention it deserved.

Because I felt that the text might be too difficult for my students, I thought I could make it more stimulating by proposing that students compare the character of Satan in the poem with the character of Satan in Arabic literature, for example, in Amal Dunqul’s Spartacus.

Glory to Satan; god of winds
who said “no” in the face of those who said “yes”
Who taught humans to tear apart nothingness
He who said “no” thus did not die
And remained a soul eternally in pain.

– Amal Dunqual Spartacus

I also suggested comparing the political events taking place in the age of Milton, as well as his anti-Monarchical and revolutionary stances with similar political movements in twentieth-century Egypt. For that reason, I suggested they look at Naguib Mahfouz’s (an Egyptian author who won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1988) novel Children of Gebelawi (1981) (‘Awlad Haritna أولاد حارتنا’).

Children of Gebelawi, by Naguib Mahfouz

By doing so I intended to make the seventeenth-century poem more intriguing and relevant to student’s concerns by analyzing it along with pertinent Arabic literature. To my surprise, I was reported for ‘glorifying’ Satan and attributing ‘falsehoods’ and ‘oppression’ to ‘the person of God, the just king’.

Paradise Lost discussed the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise while depicting a conflict between God and Satan. Consequently, we discussed the text through following a purely literary approach. We steered away from any mention of theology or the concept of God and Satan (or his Arabic equivalent, Iblis) in Islam. The fact that they conflated these concepts – the literary and the theological one – indicates obvious unfamiliarity with the texts I teach. It seems that the main aim is not to genuinely ensure the success of academics, as I am the only academic to face such a campaign, but to use this text to ruin my image and portray me as a woman who disrespects tradition, religion and who worships Satan.

It is ironic indeed that by teaching Milton, an author who supported liberty and questioned censorship, I was charged with having ‘destructive ideas’ and became censored myself. Similarly, by teaching a text that discussed the Fall of humanity, and portrayed God, Adam, Eve and Satan, I became a demonised, immoral woman who does not deserve her honourable employment as a University lecturer and scholar. I can’t help but feel what is happening to me is very similar to what happened at Salem’s witch trials. If the allegations directed against me to-date, which include insulting ‘the holy books of the three monotheistic faiths’, are accepted, then I may face three years in prison. But I am not afraid to fight for my beliefs.

Satan, by Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

***

Dr Prince remains unsure about her future at the University. Her case is neither the only one nor the most controversial. However, it does pose essential questions not only regarding the future of academia in the Arab world, but the world in general. Four centuries on from Milton’s Areopagitica, where the author himself defended the importance of knowledge and criticised censorship, Dr Prince finds herself in a place where she is asked to defend her intellectual liberty.

It is indeed a first time that a text by Milton has been linked to such a controversial suspension of an academic in the Arab world. The author has been an important and respected poetical force, whose influence is more than obvious in twentieth-century Arab writing. Whether a change in this approach is amongst us – where the author loses his literary immunity – is highly doubtful, yet seems to no longer be out of the question. Perhaps the best way to conclude this interview is with a reminder of Milton’s powerful words, reminding us that Truth, Liberty and Freedom stand in stalwart opposition to darkness and ignorance:

Ye cannot make us now lesse capable, lesse knowing, lesse eagarly pursuing of the truth, unlesse ye first make your selves, that made us so, lesse the lovers, lesse the founders of our true liberty. We can grow ignorant again, brutish, formall, and slavish, as ye found us; but you then must first become that which ye cannot be, oppressive, arbitrary, and tyrannous, as they were from whom ye have free’d us.

– John Milton, Areopagitica

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2 responses to “John Milton, Liberty and Arab Academics: The Case of Mona Prince

  1. Pingback: This Week in Egypt: Week 36-2017 (Aug 28-Sept 3) | Nervana·

  2. Awh, Prof Prince! Have you not been following modern times of nations–whichever you turn to, has religious fanatics with little knowledge, even less intellectual capability for compassionate understanding of the world they live in yet created by free thinkers.
    This is a country, like many others, have banned Yoga practices…yet again much like us here…al are getting a thick coating of dumbness.
    Quo Vadis!
    I, having taught under similar dumbed out brains for 4 yrs, would have stayed away from any “literature” to get them smarter!
    There is time for everything. Theirs have not yet come.

    Like

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