Duke cancels plan for Muslim call to prayer from tower


“It’s wrong because it’s a different god. Using the bell tower, that signifies worship of Jesus Christ. Using (it) as a minaret is wrong.”

— The Rev. Franklin Graham, speaking to the Charlotte Observer

“They apparently bent to pressure. It’s a slap in the face to Muslims, not just to the students there but to the Muslim community of Raleigh and to Muslims in general.”
— Khalilah Sabra, Islamic rights advocate, speaking to WNCW

Duke University canceled a plan to use the campus chapel tower for a weekly call to prayer for Muslims after being bombarded with complaints from alumni and others, officials said Thursday.

Instead, Muslims will gather for their call to prayer in a grassy area in front of the chapel before heading inside for their weekly prayer service. The university had initially said a moderately amplified call to prayer would be read by members of the Muslim Students Association from the tower each Friday.

“There was considerable traffic and conversation and even a little bit of confusion, both within the campus and certainly outside, about what Duke was doing,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. “The purposes and goals and even the facts had been so mischaracterized as to turn it into a divisive situation, not a unifying situation.”

The plan drew the ire of North Carolina evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, who urged Duke alumni to withhold support because of violence against Christians that he attributed to Muslims. He wrote on Facebook that the decision is playing out as “Christianity is being excluded from the public square.”

He wrote later in the day that the university had made the right decision in canceling the prayer call, known in Arabic as the adhan. However, Schoenfeld said the reversal was not based solely on Graham’s opposition.

Shalini Subbarao, 19, a Duke sophomore from St. Louis, said she was disappointed with the school’s decision.

“I thought it was really progressive. It showed out openness to other religions,” she said of the plan.

Several other students interviewed said they were not familiar with the issue, while others’ reactions were mixed.

The chapel is identified by the school as a Christian church but also hosts Hindu services and has been used for Buddhist meditations.

The chapel’s associate dean for religious life, Christy Lohr Sapp, said before the plans were canceled that the move showed the school’s commitment to religious pluralism. In a column written for the News and Observer in Raleigh, Lohr Sapp acknowledged the headlines generated by the violent acts of Boko Haram and al-Qaida extremists.

“Yet, at Duke University, the Muslim community represents a strikingly different face of Islam than is seen on the nightly news: one that is peaceful and prayerful,” she wrote.

The private university in Durham, northwest of Raleigh, was founded by Methodists and Quakers, and its divinity school has historically been connected to the United Methodist Church. One of the South’s most prestigious universities, it has nearly 15,000 students, including about 6,500 undergraduates. The school’s insignia features the Christian cross and a Latin motto translated as “learning and faith.”

The university says it has more than 700 students who identify themselves as Muslim. Schoenfeld said Duke was one of the first universities in the country to appoint a full-time Muslim imam, naming him to the post in 2008. Muslim students have been holding prayer services in the basement of the chapel for the past two years.