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Duke University imam discusses reversal of call to prayer

Imam Adeel Zeb, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, talks about what lessons students may take from the campaign that canceled the Muslim call to prayer on campus. 

Imam Adeel Zeb, Muslim chaplain at Duke University says that there may yet be a teachable moment for Muslim students.

On Friday, the school bowed to pressure from one influential Christian evangelist by reversing its previous support for a Muslim call to prayer, what was previously seen as university backing of religious diversity on campus.

“While it is unfortunate that Mr. Graham [Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization  and the son of evangelist Rev. Billy Graham] felt such a need to make the statements that he did, this can still be a learning opportunity for students,” Mr. Zeb says in a phone interview.

Franklin Graham viewed the Duke University plan to hold weekly Muslim calls to prayer as an attack on Christianity and the hashtag #boycottduke began a rapid rise with the help of  Mr. Graham's efforts on Facebook, where his call to withhold support from Duke was shared over 77,000 times.

In  his statements on Facebook, Graham made it clear he makes no distinction between the peaceful Muslim religion and the Islamic extremist attacks around the globe.

“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. I call on the donors and alumni to withhold their support from Duke until this policy is reversed” Graham posted.

The chant, which announces the start of the Duke group’s jummah prayer service, which takes place in the chapel basement each Friday at 1 p.m., lasts about three minutes and was to be moderately amplified, according to a Duke University press release.

According to Zeb, his students are “very frustrated, very sad and very shocked” by the cancellation of the amplified call to prayer.

Zeb says that now Muslim students and others on campus wishing to take part in the prayer will meet on the quadrangle outside the Chapel before gathering in the Chapel for prayers. Instead of an amplified call, a student may speak or chant it, without amplification, outside the chapel doorway.

It is a far cry from the ringing chant, and endorsement, students and their Imam had expected to share.

“It all happened so fast after Mr. Graham began his campaign,” Zeb says. “The lesson I am encouraging my students to take away from this is not one of anger or even religion but of how our stakeholders failed to support this effort when the pressure came. We must learn from this how to help our stakeholder stand fast and also to be sure that the stakeholders are really ready. In this case, clearly, our stakeholders were not.”

Muslim students at Duke are supported by the university through the Office of Student Affairs’ Muslim Life department, which hosts religious services, community service projects, and interfaith events. The Center for Muslim Life provides on-campus social and spiritual meeting spaces for students as well as opportunities for counseling and advising.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations said in a news release, according to The Washington Post, “Duke remains committed to fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus for all of its students. However, it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.”

Mr. Schoenfeld did not return phone calls on Friday, but told The Post Thursday night that a “serious and credible” security threat was one of the reasons for the decision.

“Things happened very quickly, so right now I suspect answers we are hearing are more a kind of damage control,” Zeb said when asked about the alleged security risks referenced by Schoenfeld. “I don’t see this as a security issue at all but one of stakeholders not remaining supportive.”

Zeb reiterates what he said in a previous Monitor interview.  “As I have said to you before, remains true now, I advise my students to respond to negativity by being very positive and loving in their character,” Zeb says. “It is a tradition and an honor to carry on the chant and call to prayer.”

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