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Duke’s Craven Cave to Islamophobia

The university’s attempt at religious pluralism brought out the worst in people who equate the peaceful Muslims on campus with the barbarians of ISIS.

01.16.15 11:15 PM ET

Earlier this week, Duke University announced that it would allow its Muslim community to broadcast the adhan, or traditional call-to-prayer, from the university’s iconic chapel tower. The adhan takes just a couple minutes. It would only be delivered from the tower once a week, on Friday afternoons, for the jummah prayer service.

The decision, one Duke dean wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer, was part of the “larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission.”

That mission, presumably, has not changed. But Thursday night, Duke changed its mind about the adhan.

There had been a snag. The kind of snag, really, that haunts the dreams of our finest academic institutions, those bastions of free expression and liberal tolerance—namely, anonymous threats, internal dissent, and bad PR.

Thing is, people outside the university had offered up Islamophobic vitriol, among them the evangelist Franklin Graham. And there had been “serious and credible concerns about security,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president of public affairs and government relations. What kind of concerns? Schoenfeld declined to elaborate, besides objecting to the use of the term “threats” to describe them.

Plus, there had been people inside the university community—perhaps wealthy alumni—who, Schoenfeld told The Daily Beast, had raised “reasonable, thoughtful, and respectful concerns” about the decision to let Muslims use the non-sectarian school’s community tower for three minutes every Friday in order to facilitate their worship to God.

Who were these concerned people? What were their concerns? Once again, Schoenfeld declined to elaborate.

Absolutely, Duke has a responsibility to care for the safety of its students. But there’s also, of course, the responsibility to uphold the basic standards of pluralistic decency and respect for the freedom of worship.

Yesterday afternoon, a couple hundred faculty, students, staff, and townies, Muslim and not, showed up for Friday prayer. Walking among them, it was hard not to see the university’s decision as a simple capitulation—and to see the entire situation as an example of the way that reactionary fear dominates our national conversation about Islam, both on the part of Islamophobes, and on the part of those institutions most obligated to oppose them.

Here’s how the story played out: Christy Lohr Sapp, the Associate Dean for Religious Life at Duke, approached Imam Adeel Zeb, the school’s Muslim chaplain, and suggested that the Muslim community could issue their call-to-prayer from the chapel tower on Fridays.

This wasn’t some rogue outsider handing the chapel over to heathens. Lohr Sapp teaches theology at Duke’s Divinity School and is on the chapel staff. No one foresaw any backlash. Lohr Sapp published a glowing op-ed in the News & Observer about “this small token of welcome” that would “provide a platform” for “a voice that challenges media stereotypes of Muslims, a voice of wisdom, a voice [of] prayer and a voice of peace.

Where Lohr Sapp saw a platform for peace, some bigots saw a platform for culture war. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and a prominent preacher in his own right, weighed in. “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,” he wrote on his Facebook page. The statement has garnered nearly 80,000 likes. “I call on the donors and alumni to withhold their support from Duke until this policy is reversed.”

Graham, it seems, was ready to take a brave stand against Duke’s more than 700 Muslim students, who are widely known for raping, butchering, and beheading local Christians. (Just kidding.)

On Thursday, the university issued a tersely worded statement. It explained that the call-to-prayer would “not come from the bell tower Friday as announced earlier,” but that Duke was still “committed to fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus for all of its students.” Schoenfeld emphasized to me that the decision had nothing to do with Graham’s words.

Zeb, the Muslim chaplain, described the decision as “disappointing” and “disheartening.” Still, he told The Daily Beast, “We took it at positively as possible.” The Muslim Student Association invited non-Muslims to come hear the call-to-prayer in solidarity. Many did.

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The adhan, which was chanted in both English and Arabic, begins with a repetition of the lines “God is the greatest” and “I bear witness that there is no God except God.” The multifaith crowd listened in silence. Many people had their eyes closed. Some Christian divinity school students carried signs: “Let us worship together.” “Duke Divinity supports you.”

“I feel that Christians are called to peace,” explained third-year divinity student Sarah Martindell, when asked why she had decided to show up.

I should point out that Duke’s decision isn’t entirely unreasonable. Duke was founded as a Methodist university (that’s no longer the case, although it retains a Christian influence, and a Christian divinity school). Its chapel is clearly a church. Some will point out, correctly, that Christians have the right to ask members of other faiths not to use their facilities.

The university is clearly a pluralistic place, though. And Duke’s Muslims have been praying in the chapel basement for years. “The chapel to Duke students is a symbol of Duke, not just a symbol of Christianity,” said Ting Chen, a sophomore who attended the call-to-prayer in solidarity. Schoenfeld echoed that sentiment: “The chapel represents Duke.”

Others will argue that Duke has a responsibility to protect the safety of its students—a responsibility that trumps any other consideration. That’s a stronger argument, even if those “credible concerns about security” apparently were not, strictly speaking, threats. Why shouldn’t a university act out of fear for the safety of it students?

Still, you start to feel as if there’s too much fear operating here already. There’s a reason they call it Islamophobia. It’s the suspicion that turns a gesture of interfaith kindness into something that seems, to many people, like the violation of sacred space. It’s the reactionary blindness that leads someone like Graham to conflate Duke’s Muslims with ISIS.

If I learned anything from watching “Selma”—or from, you know, being alive—it’s that one can’t respond to fear with fear. Duke itself has a powerful reminder of that message, right on campus. It’s located right next to the chapel. Along a pleasant, flagstoned path, in the shadow of the bell tower, there’s a memorial to students and alumni who died serving their country in the military.

Back on Facebook, Franklin Graham was celebrating. Meanwhile, the Muslim community of Duke kept moving forward. After prayers, they enjoyed pizza in the chapel basement. (The door was guarded by a police officer). I asked Zeb what he would say if he could speak with Graham. The imam looked tired, but he smiled, and endorsed responding to hatred with acts of kindness. “I’d love to give Franklin Graham a hug.”