Duke, Muslims and the politics of intimidation
January 22, 2015
By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment
What began as a gesture of interfaith hospitality ended badly last week when Duke University suddenly cancelled plans to begin broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer from the bell tower of Duke Chapel every Friday afternoon.
The first "call to prayer" was scheduled for January 16 — which, as it happens, was also Religious Freedom Day in America.
Duke officials cited "security concerns" as the reason for cancelling the prayer call, but declined to elaborate on specific threats.
What seems clear, however, is that Duke came under considerable public pressure after evangelist Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) attacked the university for promoting terrorism in the name of religious pluralism — and calling on alumni donors to boycott Duke.
As he has done since 9/11, Graham uses every terrorist attack carried out in the name of Islam — in this instance, the murders in Paris — as an opportunity to conflate Islam with terrorism. He has famously defamed the Muslim faith by repeatedly describing Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion."
In a Facebook post condemning Duke, Graham went so far as to link the planned Muslim call to prayer with the brutal attacks in Paris, citing the use of the phrase "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) in both.
Not only is Graham wrong about Islam — no reputable scholar of Islam supports his absurd contention that Islam is inherently violent and evil — he is dangerously wrong. By distorting Islamic teachings and history, Graham promotes intolerance, encourages extremism and chills speech.
What most concerns me about the Duke Chapel incident is not the debate about the propriety of a Muslim call to prayer from a church. After all, reasonable people of different faiths can disagree about the theological pros and cons of broadcasting a Muslim call to prayer from a church bell tower.
Instead, what's disturbing about Duke's cancellation is the perception — and perhaps the reality — that the university has allowed a "heckler's veto" to stop the broadcast of a Muslim call to prayer from Duke Chapel.
Unfortunately, the prayer controversy at Duke is not an isolated incident. The about-face by Duke officials came during a period of renewed backlash toward American Muslims in the wake of the murderous terrorist attacks in Paris. American Muslim civil rights groups have reported a significant spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric, including a threat to blow up a mosque in Ohio and another threat to attack a Muslim conference in North Texas.
Islamophobia is a pernicious disease based on ignorance and fear — and fueled by extremists who have hijacked Islam for their violent and evil ends. It can only be countered by informing people of the truth about Islam and Muslims in America (interfaithalliance.org/americanmuslimfaq) and working to strengthen America's arrangement in religious freedom for people of all faiths and none.
Now for the good news: Despite the timidity of Duke officials in the face of hate speech, Duke Chapel will remain a welcoming place to people of many faiths. Muslim students will continue to gather there for Friday prayer as they have for some years now. Hindu, Buddhist and other groups will continue to be welcomed to use space there as they have in the past. And the university will continue to have a Muslim chaplain to serve the spiritual needs of the some 700 Muslim students attending Duke.
No call to prayer rang out from the bell tower of Duke Chapel on January 16. But hundreds of Duke students — Muslim and non-Muslim — gathered that day to hear the call from a small speaker set up on the steps of the chapel.
In the end, students of conscience and goodwill came together to defy hate and intimidation, supporting their Muslim brothers and sisters by standing up for freedom.
Thanks to their welcoming spirit, Religious Freedom Day was celebrated at Duke University on January 16 after all.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org