Education

Controversy unites Duke campus for Islamic prayer

Posted January 16, 2015 2:17 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2015 6:42 p.m. EST

— Hundreds of people gathered outside Duke Chapel on Friday afternoon to support Muslim students and others during what was likely the most controversial weekly call to prayer on the Duke University campus.

Duke announced plans Tuesday for members of the Duke Muslim Students Association to start the three-minute weekly call, known as adhan or azan, from the chapel's bell tower. But the move sparked a furious backlash and even security issues, prompting the university to abandon the plan.

Instead, the adhan was held on the quad outside the chapel before Muslim students went into the building's basement to complete their prayers. Students have been praying in the chapel basement for years, and Duke Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld said officials agreed to allow them to broadcast the adhan from the tower to show the university's commitment to Muslim life on campus.

More than 700 of Duke’s 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students identify themselves as Muslims.

"We have received so much support from people who showed love and concern all across the U.S.," said Imam Adeel Zeb, the Muslim spiritual leader on Duke's campus.

Zeb said he was disappointed by Duke's reversal but said the episode provides an opportunity for the Muslim community to teach others about its faith and to demonstrate tolerance.

"Every civil rights struggle takes time, no matter what community has come into America, and this is our time to keep moving forward," he said.

University officials were taken aback by the vitriolic response to the initial plan, Schoenfeld said, calling it "pretty loud and pretty nasty."

Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Rev. Billy Graham and the head of international relief organization Samaritan's Purse, said Duke was trying to transform the bell tower into a minaret of a mosque, calling the university's move "a slap at the Christian faith."

Concerns by some within the Duke community, however, did raise serious questions about how Duke Chapel is used, Schoenfeld said.

"Duke Chapel is a powerful – I would say the most powerful – and visible symbol of the university," he said. "We have to think very carefully and very deliberately and very thoughtfully about how the chapel is used in new and different ways."

The decision to allow the adhan from the bell tower came after months of discussion, he said, adding "it's clear it should have gone on for a little bit longer."

Rev. Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel, said the chapel plays different roles on the campus, from providing space for different religious and non-religious groups to gather and work together to serving as a Christian church.

"What we had hoped to be something to galvanize unity has not had the intended effect," Powery said of the controversy. "Duke Chapel and the university as a whole is here ... for all students."

Duke's students said, however, that the episode did unite the campus.

"It seems like the Duke campus has rallied around it. Everyone's giving their support, so in the end, it will be a good situation," freshman Elish Mahajan said.

"I wasn’t expecting so much support from outside the Muslim community at Duke, but I’m glad they were here and people holding signs and protesters. I’m really proud to be a Duke student today," sophomore Farheen Jooma said.

"It was a beautiful call to prayer. I've never heard anything like it. I really enjoyed it. It was a wonderful gathering in every way," student Chris Flower said.

Schoenfeld declined to elaborate on the "serious and credible concerns about safety and security" that played into the university's reversal.

Zeb said Muslim students have safety concerns on campus, but he said the university has gone out of its way to try to provide them with an active Muslim life at Duke.

"We're very proud to be here as Muslims at Duke," he said.

"It's crazy. People are saying Muslims hurt people and are dangerous, yet we’re the ones getting threatened," Jooma said.

"The Muslim community at Duke is very valuable, and we hope that it will continue to be a very visible part of life on campus," Schoenfeld said.