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Adhan decision sparks nationwide dialogue

Students hold posters at the adhan held on the Chapel quad Friday.
Students hold posters at the adhan held on the Chapel quad Friday.

Duke's decision to relocate last week's Muslim call-to-prayer has put the University at the center of a national conversation—garnering a range of reactions from across political and religious spectrums.

The University's initial announcement that the weekly call-to-prayer would be led from the Chapel bell tower earned national attention. Although many people praised Duke for its commitment to religious plurality, others—including some conservative and Christian leaders—criticized the University, saying that playing the call-to-prayer aloud from the Chapel went against the school's Methodist roots. When Duke reversed the decision two days later, the media attention quickly intensified.

Much of the conversation—particularly in Internet comment sections—quickly became vitriolic and drew on negative stereotypes.

"In situations like this where there's a lot of heat and not a whole lot of light, you can't expect to have reasoned and thoughtful dialogue," said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

Last Tuesday, the University announced that members of the Muslim Students Association would begin leading the weekly call-to-prayer—known as the adhan—from the Chapel bell tower. Criticism from Christian leaders outside the University followed, and Duke reversed its decision on Thursday, later citing "serious and credible safety concerns." Friday's adhan was instead held on the lawn in front of the Chapel, drawing hundreds of community members.

Some members of the community questioned whether or not safety was truly the University's top reason behind the decision to move the adhan—with several suggesting that Duke had instead been motivated to move the call-to-prayer in response to alumni and potential donors who had been upset by the original announcement.

"We can't stop speculation," Schoenfeld said. "What we do is provide as much information as we can, try to provide the appropriate context for that and keep repeating it both through our own channels—websites and social media—and also by engaging with the news media."

Any action surrounding questions of interfaith engagement will attract attention in today's media climate, Schoenfeld noted, particularly on a campus as prominent as Duke. He added that the University could have refined its approach behind the initial announcement that the adhan would be held in the Chapel.

"With the powerful, powerful role that the Chapel plays as a symbol of the University, it's going to spark a lot of conversation," Schoenfeld said. "Any time we do something... we have to be very thoughtful, engage with all the stakeholders—we have to be deliberate, and that didn't happen this time.... In the process that led to the initial announcement, we should have engaged more broadly with interested stakeholders within the University and beyond."

All media except for satellite trucks were permitted at Friday's adhan, Schoenfeld said. National organizations including NBC, CNN and Fox News came to campus for the prayer ceremony in front of the Chapel, along with several local outlets. The situation was even played for humor on this week's Saturday Night Live.

"After receiving complaints from Christian leaders, Duke University has canceled plans for Muslim students to use the school's iconic Chapel tower for sounding the traditional Islamic call-to-prayer. But apparently, Christian leaders are totally cool that Duke's mascot is the devil," comedian Michael Che quipped on the show's Weekend Update.

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