J. Peder Zane

Zane: What Duke Chapel controversy should teach us about bullies

Several hundred members of the Duke community gathered outside of the Duke Chapel on Friday in Durham in support of the Muslim call to prayer.
Several hundred members of the Duke community gathered outside of the Duke Chapel on Friday in Durham in support of the Muslim call to prayer. newsobserver.com

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.

Ping – good idea: Like many North Carolinians, I learned about the decision Jan. 14 through a Point of View in The N&O by Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life at Duke University Chapel. Noting that Duke’s Muslims have long used the chapel basement for services, she said the move “represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission.”

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.

Pong – bad idea:As a secular Christian, I didn’t give much thought to the religious implications of this plan. Putting aside the unnuanced criticisms of Franklin Graham and others (more later), my mind changed after reading the three-page letter issued Jan. 15 by Richard B. Hays, dean of the Duke Divinity School. Questioning the “wisdom and propriety” of the move, he wrote: “Despite some common beliefs and traditions, Christianity and Islam stand in significant theological tension with one another. For example, the adhan, chanted in Arabic, contains the proclamation that “Muhammad is the messenger of God,” which is understood by Muslims to mean that Muhammad is the final messenger of God, while Jesus is understood as his forerunner. These differences should not be ignored, and the two traditions should not be symbolically conflated.”

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.

Ping – support a bad idea:A later passage in Hays’ letter helped bounce me back to ambivalent support for Duke’s initial plan. Explaining the backlash, he noted that millions of Christians live in “Islamic societies where their faith is prohibited or persecuted.” This seemed beside the point. Even as we acknowledge tragic intolerance abroad, it should not guide our actions at home. America is exceptional because we have embraced religious and personal freedom more than most societies.

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 jpederzane@jpederzane.com.