Ping-pong. That’s the metaphor that captures my thoughts regarding the controversy surrounding the plan to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the bell tower of Duke Chapel. I supported the move, before I opposed it, before I ended up kinda, sorta supporting it again.
I thought it was especially appropriate to announce this decision in the wake of the terrorist slaughter of innocents in France. Yes, every day seems to bring new reports of butchery by ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaida and others who murder in the name of Islam. These atrocities are not perpetrated by madmen, but by rational, intentional actors who see the world far differently from most of us. While their actions are rooted in history and ideology, those who pretend that it has nothing to do with Islam are ignoring facts.
But we live in the United States, where Muslims are not an internal threat but another American success story. Like the English, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Poles and other immigrants who came before them, they have become peaceful and productive citizens in a land with different beliefs, values and assumptions. Just as encouraging, hundreds of millions of non-Muslim Americans have accepted them as fellow citizens.
Duke’s decision seemed a happy recognition of their happy place in our society.
Using a Christian place of worship as a “minaret for Muslim proclamation” may sound fine and inclusive to non-religious people. It is tantamount, however, to saying that religious ideas, and differences, do not matter. It suggests that religious belief is hooey and implicitly asks the faithful: Why do you care?
Given Duke’s strong support of its Muslim community – it hired an imam in 2008 – I felt the respect for religious faith outweighed the countervailing merits of demonstrating religious pluralism.
Ultimately, it seemed to me that it was these American values – not Islam – that were under attack. Duke officials did not say they reversed course after being convinced by the wisdom of Franklin Graham and thousands of vitriolic opponents. Instead, they cited unnamed “credible” security threats. The school must maintain safety – though I wonder how they determined the violence that might occur if the call to prayer were issued from the bell tower would not happen if it were sounded at the chapel’s steps.
But we must also stand up for our beliefs, not just when that is easy. In the wake of the Paris attacks, I have been dismayed by the many suggestions that the Charlie Hebdo staff had death coming because of their provocative cartoons. They deserved nothing more than vocal condemnation from their critics.
In bitterly partisan America, where universities routinely disinvite controversial speakers, where a New York Times columnist argues that “if even one person is offended (by your words or actions), that is one too many,” and a recent N&O op-ed stated “a would-be assassin’s bullet brought (George Wallace’s) chickens home to roost,” we must make it clear that bullies cannot and will not silence even objectionable words and actions.
That is the teachable moment in this controversy.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.