I believe that universities have a set of responsibilities and obligations to the societies that gave birth to them. One of the core responsibilities is to take on contemporary social challenges and offer knowledge, inspiration and even exemplary models for how to overcome those challenges. In most societies, social change and transformation are first cooked and tested on college campuses. If you want to predict the future of any given society, the demographics and landscape of that societies’ college campuses as well as the content of the conversations that take place on those campuses will provide very helpful insights and tips.
The universities that take this core mission seriously, constantly examine national and global communities very carefully, identifying the challenges that those societies struggle with and trying to play a constructive role in the solutions. Unspeakable taboos, sensitive and divisive issues, elephants in the room that are not supposed to be addressed, often get their first honest attention and reflections in university classrooms and lecture halls. By all means, the universities do not always get it right, sometimes they become part of the problem while attempting to enact solutions. Societies, however, often find solutions and inspirations, at the end of the day, to their pressing issues by testing ideas and experiences at their intellectual hubs: universities.
There is no doubt that understanding and accepting Islam, with all its diversity and complexity, as an American religion and Muslims as American-as-apple-pie citizens of this country is one of the most pressing challenges that our American society faces today. I have a long list of things to be proud of about Duke University, but its ability to understand this dire challenge and its wise and quick attempts to provide meaningful and constructive responses are in my list’s top three. Duke has been one of the leading institutions to engage with Islam and the Muslim world. Duke has been and continues to be a very timely source of education for our society. Duke Islamic Studies Center houses dozens of outstanding faculty, who research, teach and produce knowledge about this world of 1.6 billion people through various disciplines. Duke was the nation’s second university to hire a full time Muslim Chaplain, the first and still the only campus that houses a Center for Muslim Life.
In a time when almost 20 percent of Americans believe that our president is an undercover Muslim, 23 percent of U.S. citizens live in fear that Muslims want to overthrow our secular democracy and establish Sharia-run primitive theocracy, where most opinion polls suggest that more than half of Americans hold, in different degrees of severity, negative views of Islam and Muslims as un-American, Duke’s aforementioned achievements are ground breaking and, to put it mildly, quite admirable.
I am also extremely proud that Blue Devil Muslims understand their unique role on this campus vis-a-vis this challenge and the University’s admirable efforts to fulfill its core mission and responsibility to deal with it. Duke’s Muslim community has been in the forefront of this endeavor and serves as a crucial source of education for the campus community and beyond through its presence and numerous events that it facilitates. One can only hope that many, if not all, members of the Duke family will take full advantage of these resources available for them to make sense of this crucial social challenge that I have been talking about.
One of the most important ways in which Duke’s Muslim community fulfills this needed role is through their annual Islamic Awareness Week: events and activities that always take place in the latter part of the Spring semester. Duke’s Muslim Students Association and Muslim Life at Duke work for months to put together various lectures, talks, movie screenings, entertainment sessions and more to share a spectrum of helpful ideas and experiences for those who would like to increase their awareness about Islam as religion and Muslims as people.
This year’s IAW events will take place from March 15 to March 23 and promise to be an intellectual and spiritual feast for participants. IAW-2012 features the nation’s leading scholars and activists talking about organized Islamophobia and its effect on our civic society, the 2012 elections vis-a-vis Islam and Muslims, various manifestations of Islamic music and art, personal testimonies of American Muslim experience, gender dynamics in Muslim societies, terrorism, religious violence and more.
Duke’s campus is several steps ahead of American society at large in terms of its conversation with Islam and Muslims. We have set a high bar with the quality of our conversations about complex issues related to the Muslim world. Duke demonstrates to our nation constructive ways of dealing with the struggle with post 9/11 realities. I hope and pray that this breath of fresh Blue Devil reality reflects the future of our nation and that what is cooking here will play a role in our nation’s attempts to strengthen its commitments to pluralism, diversity, respect and appreciation for all. I am looking forward to Islamic Awareness Week this year!
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday.