Muslims, supporters stand together as call to prayer made on Duke Chapel steps

Three hundred well-wishers joined more than 100 Muslims at Duke University on Friday to hear the traditional call to prayer – issuing not from someone high above the campus in the Duke Chapel bell tower, as had been planned earlier this week, but from an anonymous wireless speaker down below, on the chapel steps.

With little explanation Thursday, campus administrators canceled plans to let Muslim students start issuing weekly calls to prayer from the chapel’s 210-foot-high belfry. The tower plan had attracted little notice on Duke’s campus when it was announced Tuesday, but it drew biting criticism from Christian evangelist Franklin Graham and other conservative critics across the United States – accompanied, campus leaders said, by threats of violence.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s senior spokesman, was tight-lipped Friday about the university’s quick reversal. He refused to describe the threats and even avoided using that word for what he called “serious and credible concerns about safety and security.” He would not say whether outside law enforcement agencies had been called in, but an FBI spokeswoman said, “We were notified of the situation by Duke.”

Asked why the bell tower plan was scrapped, Schoenfeld cited the security worries and indicated that university officials had failed to recognize the sensitivity involved in “introducing new ways” for using the chapel tower.

“The chapel is a very powerful and potent symbol of the university for anybody who has ever been here,” Schoenfeld said. “When things happen involving the chapel, it means there has to be a very thoughtful and deliberative process for looking at that. That didn’t happen in this case.”

The Muslim Students Association has held weekly prayers in the basement of Duke’s Christian chapel for the past two years – always starting with the adhan, the traditional Islamic call to prayer, chanted indoors. Now, as of Friday, the adhan will be broadcast from the stone steps in front of the chapel.

Stand By Me

In an impromptu prelude Friday, singer Richard Phillips, a Duke sophomore and a Christian, joined cellist Matthew Bunyi, a grad student and a Muslim, in a heartfelt performance of Ben E. King’s soul classic “Stand By Me.” Members of the crowd, some holding signs that announced their support for the Muslim students, clapped and sang along.

“It’s a mixed day for Duke,” Dr. Omid Safi, director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, said later. He said he was glad to see a big turnout of Muslims and non-Muslim supporters, but disappointed because the adhan was not chanted from the bell tower.

“I think we had an opportunity to make a really bold statement about our commitment to pluralism and inclusivity,” Safi said. “And because of external pressure and violent threats that came from outside the university community directed toward our Muslim community members, this school decided to step back and reconsider.

“I’m disappointed that we live in a world where people think it’s OK to threaten the lives and well-being of fellow human beings. But I’m also proud of our community here today.”

Some threats were directed at Muslim students, Safi said, and several Muslims declined to speak to reporters Friday. Non-Muslim students said they were surprised when Duke reversed its bell tower decision.

“We thought it was progress, moving forward, trying to make everybody equal, and I don’t think they should have changed their decision,” said Brett Hall, a sophomore from Kansas City, Mo. “When you do something and then you go back on it, it takes away your credibility. When you make a stance, you need to stand up for it.”

Tahnee Thantrong, a first-year student from Los Angeles, said many students had been excited at first.

“They felt very prideful in Duke University and how they’re allowing religious tolerance,” Thantrong said. “No one really knows why they changed their minds.”

Schoenfeld said the proposal for using the bell tower had been floated a year ago by Duke’s religious life staff. He said Richard Brodhead, the university president, was not involved in the original bell tower approval. He declined to say whether Brodhead played a role in the reversal, or to say who made either decision.

Legitimate and vitriolic

He said there were “legitimate” concerns expressed this week.

“We also got a lot of vitriolic and nasty commentary from people who have nothing to do with Duke,” Schoenfeld said. “We get that stuff all the time when controversial decisions are made. So that was not an issue.”

Graham and other critics had warned that Christians were being marginalized at Duke, at the expense of Muslims whom Graham linked to violent acts of terrorism. Asked Friday whether Duke had yielded to pressure from intolerant Christians, Schoenfeld and other campus leaders said no.

“I wouldn’t say the university caved in to pressure,” said the Rev. Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel. “There were numerous reactions, both positive and negative, but after further deliberations, this was the decision that was made.”

He said Duke and its chapel welcome “a variety of religious expressions on campus,” including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and people of other beliefs.

“There’s multiple opinions about why this happened the way it did, but we continue to affirm our Muslims,” Powery said.

Imam Adeel Zeb, Duke’s Muslim chaplain and director of the campus Center of Muslim Life, confessed his disappointment over the reversal of Duke’s bell tower decision.

“I would be more happy if it happened the original way,” Zeb said. “At the same time, from my theological view, things happen according to what God wants.”

Staff writer Jay Price contributed.