Duking It Out Over The Call To Prayer

Last week, under pressure from Christianist Franklin Graham and vague, anonymous threats of violence, Duke University withdrew a plan to let a student group broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the the chapel tower once a week. Saletan shakes his head:

Administrators should have thought through the tower idea more carefully before proposing it. Their failure to do so puts them in a position of reducing Muslim use of public space, exactly the opposite of what they intended. By retreating under pressure, they’ve also empowered Graham and his ilk. They’ve sent the wrong message.

Michael Schulson unpacks the competing pressures:

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.

It’s a truly sad spectacle to see Duke beat this ignominious retreat. Pluralism matters. David A. Graham adds context to Duke’s dubious decision to cancel the prayer:

[O]ne might argue that while Duke’s [original gesture to allow the amplified call to prayer] was well-intentioned, the timing was wrong—why rile people up at a moment when nerves are already on edge about Islam? But I think it’s the other way around. There’s no time when it is as essential to stand on the side of a minority as when that group is under fire. …

[And it’s] a particularly bitter irony that this would happen at Duke. Abdullah Antepli, the original Muslim chaplain (he’s since moved into a broader role), has worked hard to build ties with other faith communities at Duke, especially Jewish groups. When pundits demand that moderate Muslims speak up and condemn terrorism, they’re talking about people like Antepli, who has done so repeatedly.

When Duke originally announced the plan to broadcast the prayer, Associate Dean Christy Lohr Sapp indicated the move was in part to show “a strikingly different face of Islam than is seen on the nightly news.” Comparing the plight of America’s Muslims to that of Catholics, Eboo Patel hopes history will repeat itself :

The Catholic story in America has a happy ending. Overt anti-Catholic prejudice has largely dissipated. Catholics sit in six of the nine seats on the Supreme Court and hold high political office without anyone raising Kennedy-era fears of a lackey of the pope occupying the White House. [Frankin’s father] Billy Graham was an important player in this change. Not long after Kennedy’s election, Graham was pictured bowing his head next to the new president at a prayer breakfast, he openly welcomed the ecumenical documents emerging from Vatican II, and proudly repeated what Pope John Paul II told him in a private meeting: “We are brothers.”

People change. Religions and interfaith relationships change. Countries change. On the question of the Catholic presence in America, Billy Graham certainly did, and America is stronger for it.