Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Caught in bubble-think, Duke backs down

In an exchange of emails, a retired Duke professor asked me, “What were they thinking?”

He was referring to the Brodhead administration’s decision to allow the Muslim call to prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower.

I would expand the question to how the administration was thinking.

Obviously, not very well.

Like other U.S. universities, Duke exists in a bubble of postmodern groupthink. Its faculty and administrators have lost contact with the whole of the outside world, little of which thinks the way they do.

That bubble was never more visible than with the bizarre decision to allow a “moderately amplified” Muslim call to prayer at 1 p.m. Fridays from majestic Duke Chapel, an iconic symbol of Protestant Christianity.

The chapel now seems more revered at a distance than at Duke itself. Once a bastion of John Wesley’s Methodism, it is today a non-denominational, inclusive haven open to most faith groups.

That’s fine, but watch for that word inclusive. You’ll see more of it below.

Less than 5 percent of Duke’s 15,000 students identify themselves as Muslim. For years they and other small religious groups have used the chapel basement for prayer and faith-related activities.

But when the university announced that the adhan, the melodic Muslim call to prayer, would sound from the chapel tower, things went from bad to worse – fast.

Franklin Graham, successor to his father, the Rev. Billy Graham and no friend of Islam, issued a fierce denunciation of Duke. Graham urged donors to hit Duke where it hurts by withholding their cash.

By Graham’s reckoning, Duke was about to allow a religion associated with mass atrocities, beheadings and female genital mutilation in the name of the Prophet Muhammad to defile Duke Chapel.

The story went worldwide. Duke quickly walked it back, citing “credible and serious” threats of violence as the reason for moving the prayer call to the ground-level West Quad.

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld admitted the university got an earful of angry telephone calls and emails, no doubt many of them from well-heeled alumni and other supporters.

One of those calls, from a woman in Ohio, attracted the attention of the Duke Public Safety office.

The woman said a person identifying herself as a Duke police officer telephoned her, saying the call was part of an “investigation.”

The woman, identified only as Pam, had called the Duke men’s basketball office to register her objection. Within 45 minutes, she said, two calls came from a female officer at Duke Public Safety.

Pam saw the Duke calls as more intimidation than investigation, and rightly so.

It was another in a string of poor decisions.

People outside the bubble saw the university kowtowing to Islam, whose brand is badly tarnished these days. The prayer decision came amid the bloody detritus of the jihadist massacres in Paris.

When Duke decided that the call to prayer from the chapel was too dicey, it found itself under withering criticism from Christians and Muslims alike.

Duke tried to explain its motive with the usual boilerplate that comes out of such incidents. Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, said the call to prayer reflected Duke’s commitment to religious pluralism. The dean of Duke Chapel, the Rev. Luke Powery, urged inclusive prayer and dialogue.

(I wonder, however, how inclusive Duke would be to Santeria, the Caribbean mish-mash of Catholicism and folk religion known for animal sacrifice. Not very, I suspect.)

Michael Shoenfeld did his duty, saying Duke fosters “an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus,” but it became clear that the call to prayer “conceived as an effort to unify was not having its intended effect.”

That’s an understatement for the ages.

As this boilerplate goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Duke did break it – again – just like the 2006 lacrosse debacle. The fix will be a long time coming.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.