The Muslim Call to Prayer at Duke

On January 14—a Wednesday—Duke University announced its decision to broadcast a Muslim call to prayer (the adhan) on campus at 1:00 every Friday afternoon.  An uproar ensued, fueled in part by Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) writing about the decision on his Facebook page.  The next day, Duke backed down, canceling its plan to issue the amplified adhan from the bell tower of the campus chapel. 

Duke, of course, is a private university and is free to use its bell tower to announce any religious summons (or other message) it chooses to.  The university traces itself to 1838 when it began as a “subscription school” organized by Methodist and Quaker families in rural North Carolina. The Quakers later split off and the school kept going with some state support but backed primarily by the Methodist Episcopal Church. As Duke’s official history puts it, “The trustees agreed to provide free education for Methodist preachers in return for financial support by the church, and in 1859 the transformation was formalized with a name change to Trinity College.”  

Times change, and so do names and missions. Duke acquired its current name in the 1920s. It acquired its infamy in 2006, when its president, Richard Brodhead; a corrupt district attorney, Michael Nifong; a “Group of 88” faculty members; and the gullible press led by the New York Times elevated into a national scandal a fictitious allegation of rape against some of the university’s lacrosse players. That scandal sits restively in the background of many subsequent developments at Duke. President Brodhead still presides, which among other things means that Duke remains a university inclined towards reading any situation as ripe for a demonstration of proactive social justice. 

Duke Responds to Paris

The most recent situation to be read that way was the January 7 invasion of the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, when Muslim terrorists murdered eleven people for blasphemy against Islam.  On January 11, some two million people, including 40 world leaders, participated in a Paris rally of national unity. The topic of Islamic terror was once again in focus for much of the world. The powers that be at Duke took counsel and decided that their response would consist of announcing that the adhan would henceforth issue from the Duke chapel on Friday afternoons.

The cause-and-effect is not in doubt. The day that Duke announced its decision to do the Friday call to prayer, Christy Lohr Sapp, the associate dean for religious life at Duke, published an essay in the News & Observer explaining that Duke was acting in response to “the recent attacks in Paris and Pakistan and renewed conflict in Nigeria.” These events had focused “negative press” on the Muslim world, and in particular had led to the portrayal of Muslims “as angry aggressors driven by values that are anti-education and anti-Western.” The Muslim community at Duke, wrote Lohr Sapp, “represents a strikingly different face of Islam,” one that is “peaceful and prayerful.” Duke’s decision to do the call to prayer on Fridays was intended to give “more of a voice” to “this face of faith.” 

Lohr Sapp’s essay is important because it exemplifies what Duke officials were thinking before the decision attracted controversy. She captures the university’s self-approbation as it takes advantage of “the opportunity” to show its “commitment to religious pluralism.” She is especially happy that, at Duke, respecting religious pluralism doesn’t mean asking all the different groups to share a “multi-purpose prayer room.” Instead, Duke strives to support each group according to its “particularities and practices,” each in “its own unique way.” Hence it made sense that “the neo-gothic cathedral at the heart of Duke’s campus” be repurposed “as a minaret.”

As astonishing as these declarations sound to many Americans, they are a fairly straightforward expression of the multicultural orthodoxy found on most college campuses.  It is, of course, a troubled orthodoxy: the parts do not cohere. A Gothic tower is not a minaret, except by a strenuous act of cultural appropriation. Dean Lohr Sapp’s commitment to the ideal of each-religion-in-its-own-particular-way runs smack against the reality that the “particularities” of many religions are mutually exclusive.  And few religions are content to subordinate themselves to the supposedly higher principle of “religious pluralism.”

The Multiculturalist View of Religion

A hard problem—and a very old one—lurks beneath Lohr Sapp’s glib formulations. The plurality of religious beliefs in America requires of us all a certain disciplined abstinence. We cannot always be actively minding one another’s religious commitments. Quite often we need to get out of the way.  We have two formulations of this respect for religious diversity that are older than multiculturalism. One approach now out of favor was religious “tolerance.” To tolerate, of course, is to suppress something:  dislike, aggravation, hostility. The tolerant do not refrain from judgment. They judge negatively but keep their judgment to themselves. But, by judging at all, the tolerant are guilty in the eyes of multiculturalists of assuming unwarranted superiority.  Multiculturalists don’t tolerate difference; they celebrate it.

The other old approach to religious plurality was to create a secular public order that legally curtailed the exercise of religious authority by one community of faith over any other. The boundaries of this secular order were never defined once and for all and continue to provide grist for litigation and judicial interpretation. This month, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Holt v. Hobbs, granting on religious liberty grounds a Muslim convict the right to wear a beard in prison. Despite the many twists and turns in the law, the broad principle is clear:  no particular religion could be allowed to trump the liberty of adherents of other religions (or no religion). The courts have constantly recalibrated the balance between the rights of people to uphold their beliefs and the rights of others to be left relatively unhindered by those beliefs, and the balance between religious liberty and the rule of law.

Contemporary multiculturalism has some sympathy with secularism, but it is not so much focused on maintaining a public square swept free of religion as it is concerned with the cultural battles over which religions should be encouraged.  Multiculturalists would like to diminish what they regard as the undue privileges of the older, more established traditions in the United States, and they would like to enhance instead the recognition and esteem of less established religions.  Behind the slogan, “commitment to religious pluralism,” lies a thinly disguised distaste for traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism.  Versions of Christianity and Judaism that conform themselves to the prescriptions and anathemas of multiculturalism are welcome. But, ironically, those that stick to their older “particularities and practices” encounter a great deal of static from the guardians of the new dispensation.

Duke’s short-lived effort to amplify the Muslim call to prayer on Friday afternoons was correctly understood by critics as an instance of this underlying animus. 

Varieties of Religious Experience

Islam is of special interest to many in the campus left because it stands in opposition to Western civilization.  It is perfectly true that many Muslims in America are “peaceful and prayerful,” and many others are indifferent to jihad and Islam’s more bloodthirsty versions. But the irenic side of Islam isn’t really what prompts the assiduous efforts of people like Dean Lohr Sapp to draw attention to Muslim worship.  Rather, they are engaged in a game of leapfrog.  Radical Islamists commit an atrocity in the name of Islam; large numbers of Westerners respond with revulsion; and the stage is set for a drama in which the multiculturalists blame the West for “Islamophobia.”  One dramatic way to drive that point is to showcase Islam from the Gothic tower. 

The reactions from evangelical Christians were predictable, though it isn’t quite clear that Duke officials actually predicted them.  The officials may be sufficiently cocooned in their subculture as to have had no real sense of how provocative their innovation would be within days of the Paris massacre.  In any case, once Duke decided to cancel the call to prayer, the door was open to those whose preferred narrative is that the Islamophobic Christians had once again mistreated peaceful Muslims.  “An Old Bias Found a New Target at Duke U.,” headlined an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Educationby Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core.  Patel compared the evangelical response to Duke’s call to prayer to the evangelical prejudice against Catholics when John F. Kennedy was a candidate for president.  Patel also argued that American Muslims are unfairly asked “to answer for Muslim extremists.”  Such questions are “denigrating” and violate the “dignity” of Muslims. 

Franklin Graham’s and Eboo Patel’s postings will have to stand in for the 600,000 or so articles and reports that have so far been published about this affair.  Clearly we have had another skirmish in the never-ending culture war.  Duke’s official climb down from the minaret of multiculturalism took the form of the university PR flak, Michael Schoenfeld, reassuring everyone, “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.”

“Conceived as an effort to unify” is an odd way to put it.  Setting up the Muslim call to prayer from the Christian bell tower was an effort to rally support for a particular religious-cum-political view. It is the view that, deep down, all religions, rightly understood, are legitimate expressions of the same peaceful aspirations.  That isn’t really a “unifying” view because it is intended from the outset to emphasize the distinction between those who embrace the reductionist idea and those who stick with the claims to exceptionality for their own faiths.

We need to distinguish between the fact of our pluralist society, which calls for tolerance and the rule of law, and the ideology of multiculturalism that commands us to pay deference to a self-evidently false proposition: that all religions say more or less the same thing. In his comment on the Duke affair, Shio Chong, a campus minister at York University in Toronto, warned us away from the “simplistic” view that this is a matter of fundamentalists facing off against “relativist, postmodern pluralists.”  Chong explained, “Duke University has confused syncretism with hospitality, while Franklin Graham and his ilk have confused hostility with defending the faith.” 

“Immediate Global Repercussions”

Is it too much to expect our universities, with their deep roots in the systematic study of world religions, to approach these matters with some level of cultural sophistication?  Maybe. The dean of the Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays, declared that he had not been consulted and was taken by surprise by the university’s decision to authorize the Muslim call to prayer from the chapel tower.  He wrote, “Any decision to permit the use of a prominent Christian place of worship as a minaret for Muslim proclamation will, in our time, have immediate global repercussions. Any discussion about such a proposal should take into careful account the perspective of millions of Christians living in Islamic societies where their faith is prohibited or persecuted.”

In short, Duke acted without even consulting some of its own scholars who might have tempered the university’s haste towards a clumsy form of hospitality towards campus Muslims. Some sense of how this message would be received by the broader community was clearly lacking.  Duke’s eagerness to line up in solidarity with the small Muslim community on campus and to conform to the multiculturalist orthodoxies of the moment is, unfortunately, pretty much what we have come to expect from universities that no longer take the time to think.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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One thought on “The Muslim Call to Prayer at Duke”

  1. I’m totally confused as to how you consider this attempted prayer program to be in favor of multiculturalism. Wouldn’t multiculturalism consider it a crass reduction of the local Muslim community into a symbol of Christian guilt?

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