Duke 'Call to Prayer' no more: Why the university reversed itself

After negative public opinion and threats to students, Duke University decided not to amplify a weekly Muslim call to prayer. 

Jonathan Drew/AP
On Thursday, just days after announcing that a traditional Muslim call to prayer would echo from the historic chapel tower, Duke University changed course after being bombarded with calls and emails objecting to the plan. Instead, Muslims will gather for their call to prayer in a grassy area in front of the chapel before heading into a room in the chapel for their weekly prayer service on Friday.

Duke University announced Tuesday they would begin a campus-wide weekly Muslim call to prayer. Within 48 hours, after much public outcry, the university reversed its decision.

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

The “adhan,” or call to prayer, was set to take place every Friday and be amplified through the Duke University Chapel bell tower. A male member of the Muslim Students Association would chant the traditional call to signal the beginning of the organization’s prayer service. The prayer lasts about three minutes. While the prayer will still take place, it will no longer be amplified across campus. Rather, the prayer will take place in a non-amplified fashion on the quadrangle outside the Chapel. According to Duke, 700 of their 15,000 students identify as Muslim and about 100 attend the weekly prayer service.

Why did Duke’s effort for religious inclusivity draw such a strong response?

The debate that arose on social media was fast and furious. Some students applauded the university for the development, but many quickly rejected the idea of a public broadcast. In light of the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo and religious tensions around the world, the motives for not just Duke’s announcement but the timing of the announcement were called into question.

Franklin Graham, president of international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse and the son of evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, viewed the announcement as a personal attack on Christianity. Amid the rapidly spreading hashtag #boycottduke, Mr. Graham took to Facebook, where his call to withhold support from Duke was shared over 77,000 times.

“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.”

Mr. Schoenfeld said one of the reasons for the university’s decision to reverse the call to prayer was due to a “serious and credible” security threat, according to The Washington Post. Omid Safi, director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, said “a number of credible threats against Muslim students, faculty, and staff” were made, and that the school is treating the “external” threats as a “criminal matter.” He continued to say that Muslim students are “scared and disappointed,” and have been advised not to identify themselves.

Ibrahim Hooper with the Council on American-Islamic Relations feels that Duke’s decision will only perpetuate negative feelings towards Islam in the US.

“It sends a message of intolerance,” he said in an interview with WRAL News. “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.”

Duke will continue to support its Muslim students through their weekly prayer as they meet outside the Chapel, a location where many interfaith activities take place.

“Our Muslim community enriches the university in countless ways,” said Schoenfeld. “We welcome the active expression of their faith tradition, and all others, in ways that are meaningful and visible.”

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