Durham News: Opinion

After San Bernadino: Carnage prompts Duke campus candor

By Tom Gasparoli

Tom Gasparoli
Tom Gasparoli

Days after the San Bernardino mass murder, Duke University’s Center for Islamic Studies (DISC) posted three essays of note in three hours, each penned by writers on campus.

Taken together, they are fascinating and provocative, and in today’s threatening environment, the authors are brave to say what they said.

DISC, headed by director Omid Safi since July 2014, describes itself as “one of the leading institutions in North America for the study of Islam and Muslims.”

In one piece, titled: “It Happened Again! Pained Reflections on Islam and Violence,” Duke assistant history professor Mustafa Tuna writes, “in the nauseating vortex of this record of atrocities, my chest fills with emotions of pain and frustration. How is this happening?

How can such carnage be associated with the name of the religion that I believe in because I am convinced that it carries the ultimate truth?”

Tuna’s words, originally for islamicommentary.org (a site managed, in part, by DISC), pound through the pages. He is fraught and foreboding.

The faculty member sharply scolds. “Before sifting through centuries-old books of Islamic legal opinions or ordering your Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies books on Amazon.com as you plan to go on a rampage,” he writes, “first fix your confused minds.”

Tuna asks aspirants to the Islamic State and this killing to save themselves, “from the abyss that you are falling into. But alas … and sadly, I cannot bring myself to follow that hope.”

To “ordinary Muslims including myself,” Tuna says: “Taking your name and your religion back is not a choice but an obligation.”

Why women?

The fact that a woman, a new mother, carried out the mass murder at a holiday party in California – and that other Muslim women have played roles linked to terrorist attacks in France over the last year – fuels associate clinical law professor Jayne Huckerby in her essay for Time, titled, “Why Women Join ISIS.”

Huckerby, who heads Duke law school’s International Human Rights Clinic, writes, “The facts are clear: women can be terrorists, too. Yet, the phenomenon still seems to shock.”

“Women,” Huckerby continues, have “long been involved in terrorism of all stripes and in the case of ISIS, its Western female recruits can be drawn by many of the same factors as men: alienation, inequality, marriage, adventure, and pull of the cause.”

At the close, Huckerby warns, “at the very moment this recognition is most needed, the shooting’s aftermath points to a lingering blind spot on women perpetrators that shows just how far we really are from tackling their deadly acts.”

Not rational

Isak Tranvik, a Duke graduate student in political science, attended the recent, packed Donald Trump event at the state fairgrounds. Tranvik paints a picture of a younger crowd that seemed affable and relaxed before Trump took the stage.

But after the presidential candidate launched into his polarizing rhetoric, Tranvik said, the crowd was “immediately transformed” and “roared in approval.”

Tranvik writes that the charged rally was “a stark reminder that politics is an emotional endeavor. Human beings are simply not rational calculators; we respond to sentiments as much as sound arguments.”

The grad student ended with his own emotions. “Somewhat paradoxically,” he writes, “the whole ordeal left me feeling quite terrified – not of the “other,” the “unknown” or America’s decline, but at the realization that Trump was right about one thing: He had started a movement.”

By publicizing or generating these pieces and others, the Center for Islamic Studies right here in Durham shows it is unafraid to encourage extraordinary candor in a time when unmitigated vitriol and inexplicable violence is proving so tempting to so many.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.