For Whom the Muezzin Calls

Duke University announced it would broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from its iconic chapel, then backed down after threats of violence.

When I was working on the student paper at Duke, we'd get a letter to the editor once a year or so that would lament that the university had lost touch with its religious roots as Trinity College, a Methodist school. The correspondents would invariably cite the university motto, "Eruditio et religio," and complain that the the campus had become a den of secularism, where students and faculty were concerned only with eruditio at the expense of religio.

While there's a divinity school and plenty of faith groups—from Campus Crusade for Christ to the Catholic Newman Center to a prominent Jewish center—at Duke, it's true that the religion's role on campus has declined. One exception to the trend is Islam. In the mid-2000s, the school opened a Muslim prayer room. By 2006, an iftar—the meal breaking fast during Ramadan—might draw 300 attendees. In 2008, Duke hired its first full-time imam to serve alongside Christian and Jewish faith leaders on campus. It was one of the first American universities to create such a post.

On Wednesday, Duke announced it would start broadcasting the adhan, or call to prayer, from its campus chapel, fitting squarely in that progression. The call was to happen every Friday at 1 p.m., to announce midday prayers, and would be sung in Arabic and in English. It would be "moderately amplified," the school said. An op-ed by Associate Dean Christy Lohr Sapp in the Raleigh News & Observer suggested it would hardly be loud enough to be heard outside of the immediate vicinity.

“While it might seem an odd juxtaposition to have the adhan chanted in the same tower from which bells toll daily (and twice on Sundays!), it is actually in keeping with the university’s commitment to fostering the spiritual development of all students," Sapp wrote. "The chanting of the adhan communicates to the Muslim community that it is welcome here, that its worship matters, that these prayers enhance the community and that all are invited to stop on a Friday afternoon and pray."

By Thursday afternoon, the university had reversed itself. “Duke remains committed to fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus for all of its students,” spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said in a statement. “However, it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.” There will still be a call to prayer, but it will be delivered from the quad in front of the chapel.

Omid Safi, who directs the Duke Islamic Studies Center, said he was disappointed but told me there had been "numerous verified instances of credible threats" against members of the university community.

"My disappointment is primarily directed toward people who find it acceptable to have recourse to violence, even the threat of violence, to make the point they want to make—particularly if they see these threats as being substantiated by their own religious conviction," Safi said. "We all know about the Muslim community having our crazies, but it seems like we don’t have a monopoly on it."

Safety of students is an understandable reason for caution, though Duke's half-measure seems unlikely to pacify malevolent objectors: There's still a public call to prayer, after all. Meanwhile, the threat of violence has triumphed over the right to religious expression. At a time when much of the world, appalled by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, is rightly standing up for the right to say things that offend Muslims, a peaceful gesture by Muslims has been quashed by a threat of violence—much of it emanating from Christians.

The fierce backlash against the original announcement was led by Franklin Graham, son of Billy (but no relation to me), who posted this on Facebook:

If it weren't so malicious, this might be amusing—though it should be clear that he nowhere called for violence or threats against the university.

The idea that Christianity is doomed if a Muslim call to prayer is heard once a week from the monumental, 210-foot Gothic Christian chapel that dominates the campus is, on face, silly. There's a Christian dean in charge of religious life and weekly Sunday services at the Chapel. The daily 5 o'clock carillon recital (often including hymns and other Christian sacred music) from the tower is loud enough that it interrupted the history of Islam class I had next door. It ought to go without saying that the awful acts of terrorists in Paris and elsewhere do not represent Muslim students and staff at Duke.

Franklin Graham's statement fits with his history of making inflammatory comments about Islam (among other things). He also strongly implied in 2012 that he thought President Obama was a Muslim. There's plenty of other overheated commentary elsewhere. A writer at RedState, for example, says the adhan represents "blatant, school sponsored proselytizing" and part of a "slide into dhimmitude," a reference to the status of non-Muslims in Muslim countries. In classical Islam, dhimmi were protected by law and exempt from Muslim religious obligations provided they paid jizya, a tax. How precisely the road leads from a small group of Muslims praying to taxes on infidels is unclear. Duke says there are about 700 self-identified Muslim students on campus, out of nearly 15,000.

Now, one might argue that while Duke's gesture was well-intentioned, the timing was wrong—why rile people up at a moment when nerves are already on edge about Islam? But I think it's the other way around. There's no time when it is as essential to stand on the side of a minority as when that group is under fire. Just Wednesday, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf laid out a careful case for why Islamophobia—"irrational fear of mainstream Muslims"—is a real danger in contemporary American society. Today's news corroborates his argument.

It's a particularly bitter irony that this would happen at Duke. Abdullah Antepli, the original Muslim chaplain (he's since moved into a broader role), has worked hard to build ties with other faith communities at Duke, especially Jewish groups. When pundits demand that moderate Muslims speak up and condemn terrorism, they're talking about people like Antepli, who has done so repeatedly.

As an alumnus, I'm conflicted. It's upsetting to me that Duke caved in the face of threats, but without knowing the nature of those threats, any gainsaying I do is incomplete. On the other hand, the sequence raises serious questions about how the university could have made such a decision without, apparently, thinking through the ramifications. When I asked Schoenfeld why this matter had inspired more vitriol than other efforts to support Muslim life on campus, he noted that the chapel looms large in Duke's psychic landscape as well as its physical one.

"We have to be very thoughtful and deliberative and consultative when there are, with the best of intentions, ideas to use the chapel in new and different ways," he said. Clearly that did not happen here, and so the fiasco is no tribute to Duke's wisdom. Asked whether donor pressure was a factor, he said he'd heard from people on and off campus who had feelings in both directions, but he mostly emphasized the safety risk. (After a series of scandals in recent years—from the lacrosse rape hoax to the "Duke sex list," the university seems perpetually on edge about the next blowup.)

Set that aside, though. It's easy to see the ways this incident may reverberate. Muslims at Duke may feel as though the university has their back only when it's politically popular. Administrators at other colleges will be reluctant to institute calls to prayer, having seen what happened even at a wealthy, powerful private university. Meanwhile, Franklin Graham is crowing on Facebook over Duke's reversal. The lesson for Graham and his ilk is that well-targeted protests are an effective way to shut down pluralism and dialogue.

"At the end of the day, this is not an Islam conversation," Safi told me. "It’s an America conversation. It's a 'who do we want to be and how do we want to arrange and accommodate diversity?' conversation. Are we a zero-sum society? Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?"

For too many Americans, the answer to Safi's question is clearly yes. And sadly, Thursday belongs to them.