Duke University Cancels Muslim Call To Prayer Broadcast It Proudly Supported Just Two Days Before

Only two days after Duke University announced Muslim students could broadcast could broadcast the call to prayer from the top of its iconic Gothic chapel on Friday afternoons, the private institution reversed course Thursday. Duke had come under fierce pressure from evangelical Christians and outraged conservative news outlets. The adhan, which lasts about three minutes, is generally broadcast five times each day to summon Muslims to worship; under Duke’s proposal, Muslims would recite the adhan from the chapel roof once on Fridays before moving to the church basement to hold their jummah prayer service.

Intended to promote religious dialogue and support the university’s burgeoning Muslim community in the face of increasingly rabid Islamophobia, the initiative crumbled in the face of vocal outrage from Christians and a number of serious security threats, school officials said.

Two Muslim students were slated to issue the first adhan from the Duke Chapel Friday, with one student reciting the usual call to worship and a second reading an English translation for the broader campus community. In an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Raleigh News & Observer, Christy Lohr Sapp, who serves as the chapel’s associate dean for religious life, explained the university’s decision as an opportunity to fulfill its commitment to religious diversity:

At Duke University, the Muslim community represents a strikingly different face of Islam than is seen on the nightly news: one that is peaceful and prayerful. This face of the faith will be given more of a voice as the Duke Muslim community begins chanting the adhan, the call to prayer, from the Duke Chapel bell tower on Fridays beginning this week.

More than 700 of Duke’s 15,000 students self-identify as Muslim, and the university has ramped up its efforts over the past few years to provide resources and space for Muslim students on campus. For years, the chapel basement has acted as a place of worship for the campus’ Muslim community. The only radical change Duke proposed was allowing students to issue the call to prayer from the chapel’s 210-foot roof.

Thus it makes sense that, by and large, the Duke student body was generally unconcerned by the university’s announcement.

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But members of the evangelical Christian community in North Carolina proved a different beast altogether. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, took to Facebook Tuesday afternoon to lambast the university’s decision and to call for donors to withdraw their support from the institution until “the policy was reversed:”

As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism.

Graham’s Facebook post, at the time of this writing, had garnered over 76,000 likes and more than 62,000 shares. In turn, rightwing media outlets like Breitbart.com and Fox News entered the fray, decrying the attempt to discriminate against Christians.

The anger and anti-Muslim prejudice didn’t end with the Internet. Duke University received hundreds of phone calls and emails from people outraged over the decision, according to Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations. Schoenfeld added:

The level of vitriol in the responses was unlike any other controversy we have seen here in quite some time.

After receiving a number of serious security threats, the university decided to move the adhan from the Duke Chapel proper and hold it in the quad instead.

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Duke has not released any concrete details on how serious the threats of violence were and at whom they were targeted. But the Durham police force reported that the university had requested extra security be on hand Friday around the proposed worship services at 1 pm, and Duke discouraged the Muslim Students Association from talking to the media, citing security risks.

It is also important to note that Graham intended to put pressure on Duke’s financial pipeline by asking donors to cut off their contributions. While Schoenfeld did not mention monetary pressures when explaining Duke’s decision to move the call of prayer, North Carolina Central University professor Rolin Mainuddin noted that private institutions are more dependent on fundraising than public universities.

“Duke remains committed to fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus for all of its students,” Schoenfeld said in a statement. “However, it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.”

As Duke alum and The Atlantic staff writer David Graham notes, Duke’s decision to reverse course, even in the face of security threats, plays into rising Islamaphobia and anti-Muslim discrimination following the Charlie Hebdo killings. Now more than ever, he writes, we should be standing alongside the peaceful Muslim community that seeks to make America its home:

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.
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Bowing to threats of violence undercuts the message of religious toleration and diversity that motivated Duke’s decision to broadcast the adhan from the chapel in the first place, adds Ibrahim Hooper from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

It sends a message of intolerance. It sends a message that Duke is willing to bow to bigotry and intolerance. The American Muslim community feels targeted by this Islamaphobia we see online, on newspapers, on TV.

Without wanting to compromise the safety of Duke’s Muslim community, the university’s decision only serves to reward a politics of intoleration that wields the threat of violence as a bludgeon to force compliance with its views. (Hmm. I believe we can find similar logic at work elsewhere around the world.)

As Professor Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center told The Atlantic's Graham:

We all know about the Muslim community having our crazies, but it seems like we don’t have a monopoly on it.

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