Biography of Denis MacEoin
Denis MacEoin has been editor of the Middle East Quarterly since June 2009. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on January 26 1949, and was educated there in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Ireland's leading rugby school. It was through a secondary education at the Lyric Players Drama School that he developed a love of theatre and literature. This led to his decision to study English Language and Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, alma mater of literary figures Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and J. P. Donleavy. His move to Dublin came in the same year as the Troubles broke out in the North. He specialized in medieval literature and graduated with an MA in 1971.
Before moving to Dublin, he had become a member of the Baha'i religion, something he remained for another ten years. He became the first Western Baha'i to address himself to the study of Persian and Arabic, and for that purpose he headed for Edinburgh University in Scotland, where he studied Arabic under Pierre Cachia, Qur'an under William Montgomery Watt, and Persian under Laurence Elwell-Sutton. He spent another four very cold years in Edinburgh, traveling to warmer climes, to Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, where he studied at Shiraz University.
Whatever his original intentions in studying oriental languages and Islamic history, on graduating with a First in 1975, he chose to go to King's College Cambridge, where he embarked on a PhD, researching the Iranian precursor of Baha'ism, the short-lived but revolutionary Babi religion, a subject that became his main field of expertise, and on which he has published widely. In Cambridge, he made substantial use of the Browne Collection, a remarkable library of mainly manuscript Persian, Arabic, and Turkish materials assembled by Cambridge don E. G. Browne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A few months after arriving in Cambridge, Denis married his wife Beth, to whom he has been wed for almost thirty-four years. She too has a degree in English, a second in art history, and a third in homeopathic medicine, which she practices. She has written around twenty books on homeopathy and natural health.
When he completed his PhD, there were no academic posts in his field available in the UK, and Iran – where he had planned to go – had become a dangerous place for a Westerner speaking fluent Persian and with close connections to the heretical Baha'i minority. The offer of a job teaching English in Morocco opened the possibility of learning a new form of Arabic and researching Maghrebi Islam. Denis and his wife moved to Fez, where he taught English, Arabic-English translation and Islamic civilization at Mohamed ben 'Abdellah University for just under a year. Their time in Fez proved disastrous, and most of Denis's salary remained unpaid at the end of the year. Conditions at the university proved problematic (a dead dog rotting through the year at the main gates, students threatened with military repression, no staff toilet – it had been locked since staff asked for it to be cleaned – no staff facilities at all, and everyone's original contract torn up and replaced by less favorable agreements, sums taken from their salary as a 'war tax'). At the end of the year, newly-joined six members of staff handed in their notice and left.
Soon after returning to the UK, Denis was appointed lecturer in the Religious Studies department of Newcastle University (in Newcastle upon Tyne), where he taught Arabic and Islamic Studies and developed a course in new religious moments. His post was funded by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, and at first it seemed highly secure. After some years, however, the Saudis became aware that he was teaching courses in Shi'ism and Sufism (as well as others on Muhammad and the Qur'an, Sunnism, the Qur'an and hadith in Arabic, and part of a course in world religions). This prompted the termination of his post and the appointment (by the Saudis, without consulting the university) of a Saudi teacher in his place. The fact that the new teacher had no qualifications in Islamic Studies at all seemed to go unnoticed by the British university authorities.
Denis then became an Honorary Fellow at the Centre for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Durham University, not far from Newcastle, and continued to research and write, publishing numerous articles, encyclopedia entries, and books over the years. He has published extensively on Islamic topics, contributing to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Islam in the Modern World, the Encyclopaedia Iranica, the Penguin Handbook of Living Religions, journals, festschrifts, and books, and has himself written a number of books, including The Sources for Babi History and Doctrine, Rituals in Babism and Baha'ism, and The Messiah of Shiraz: Studies in Early and Middle Babism (2008); he has also co-edited Islam in the Modern World. In 1992, HarperCollins published a volume of his journalism under his pen-name Daniel Easterman, with the title New Jerusalems: Islam, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Rushdie Affair.
By the time he left Newcastle, he had started a second career as a novelist, writing initially as Daniel Easterman. He has published 16 Easterman titles, all international thrillers, many of which are set in the Middle East. He has also published eight novels as Jonathan Aycliffe. These follow the strong English and American tradition of the ghost story; Aycliffe was one of the first to produce full-length stories in this genre. Two Aycliffe titles (Naomi's Room and The Vanishment) have been optioned for films.
In September 2005, Denis was appointed to the post of Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University. Fellows are all professional writers employed to work with undergraduates, postgraduates, and staff on essays, theses, articles and anything else for which they need help. The work is rewarding because it enables fellows to discuss, not just grammar, syntax, or spelling, but ways to turn ideas into coherent sentences. Fellows stay in their post for three years. Denis has also taught a module in writing genre fiction at Newcastle University, which has one of the most prestigious departments of creative writing in the UK.
In 2007, he wrote a full-scale report on Islamic hate literature found in Britain (The Hijacking of British Islam 2007). This was prepared for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange. It remains a controversial study, following Muslim attempts to denounce it. A 2009 study for Civitas, another centre-right think tank based in London, Music, Chess and other Sins: Segregation, Integration, and Muslim Schools in Britain , was published online in 2009 and led to demands for a more thorough inspection of Muslim schools in the UK. A second study for Civitas, Shari'a Law or One Law for All was published in June 2009 and generated widespread comment across the UK and Europe.
Denis has a range of interests. He runs a blog entitled 'A Liberal Defence of Israel' and is involved with pro-Israel activity in the UK. He is a huge fan of Portuguese fado music and is currently trying to organize a concert to include Portuguese musicians and British poets reading translations of the poetry used in the songs. He loves French cinema, American films like Metropolitan and Lost in Translation, Persian classical music (Muhammad Reza Shajarian above all), Arabic and Persian calligraphy, and a wide range of British and American novelists. He also loves the best US TV shows, from NYPD and The West Wing to ER and Mad Men, as well as a steady diet of British classical dramas from Austen to Mitford. He is a former President of the UK Natural Medicines Society, and continues to take an interest in the debate over alternative and complementary medicine.