When Duke canceled plans for a weekly Muslim call to prayer, or adhan, from the Duke Chapel, many who opposed the cancellation claimed that the University had caved to conservative evangelical Franklin Graham and the financial boycott called for in a Facebook post where he called "on the donors and alumni to withhold their support from Duke until this policy is reversed."
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said there were "credible safety concerns" that ultimately led to the adhan's cancellation. With different rumors circulating about what caused the cancellation, the campus overflowed with criticism of Islamophobic donors and acquiescent administrators. On social media, some students denounced the administration for sacrificing religious freedom on the altar of big money. The Duke community was left to wonder: Why was the call to prayer really canceled?
Over three weeks, I asked that question in two dozen interviews with administrators, students and religious life staff. As with every topic worth pursuing, it led to new questions—of origin, of approval, of process. Where did the idea come from? Who approved the event, and when? Who made the decision to cancel, and what factors did they consider—security, or big money?
Last but certainly not least, investigating the specifics of the Duke call to prayer led me to a broader question: What is the Chapel, anyway?
I aim to share what I have learned fairly and thoroughly, but not without bias—I do not pretend to cover this objectively, as I am involved in the Chapel’s Christian and interfaith ministries. I hope this article answers some of the questions that have nagged at Duke’s mind and conscience since Jan. 16. I hope it raises new questions for you—and I hope you keep asking them, in private and in public, for the issues raised here go to the heart of Duke’s identity, its interfaith relations and the role of religion on campus.
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Chapel staff first conceived the idea for a bell tower call to prayer in mid-September. Duke's Chapel—which for nearly a century has stood as the University's most iconic landmark—has a long-standing tradition of hosting events for different student groups and different faiths.
“The idea of a call to prayer from the Chapel tower is just a continuation of what already has been,” said Dean of the Chapel Luke Powery.
Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta also said that the proposal was neither student-initiated nor Muslim-initiated, and President Richard Brodhead called it “a gesture of pure goodwill.”
Chapel staff then shared the idea with Adeel Zeb, the new imam and director of the Center for Muslim Life, shortly after he started at Duke Sept. 20. Zeb brought the idea to student leaders in the Muslim Student Association, who he said were excited about the prospect.
One of those officers, MSA vice president Rasheed Alhadi, a senior from Monterey, Calif., said he appreciated the Chapel’s offer.
“It took a lot of courage to even think of the idea in the first place,” he said.
The MSA’s general body learned of the plan Jan. 9 at the first Friday prayers of the Spring semester and through the group’s email newsletter on Tuesday morning, Jan. 13.
A few hours later, the Chapel announced the plan to have a weekly call to prayer in a Duke Today news release. It used quotes from Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, that would appear in her op-ed the next day.
In her News & Observer op-ed, Lohr Sapp identified two motives for the call to prayer: it “communicates to the Muslim community that it is welcome here” and “represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission [of Eruditio et Religio].”
The Duke Today news release also quoted Zeb: “The collective Muslim community is truly grateful and excited about Duke’s intentionality toward religious and cultural diversity.”
In order to execute the weekly call to prayer, the religious life staff had to go through other chains of command, Zeb said. Top Duke administrators, including Moneta and Schoenfeld, knew of the plan weeks in advance.
Since the call involved amplification, it required a special exception from the University Center Activities and Events, which reports to Moneta. He said that he was not the one to initially approve the plan because exceptions are an everyday matter.
“We knew of this plan for the call weeks before, no question about that,” Moneta said, adding that he personally learned of it “a couple of weeks” before the event, almost by accident. “I don’t even know if I heard it in passing, or [whether] Christy [Lohr Sapp] may have sent me an email saying, ‘Just something you might appreciate knowing.’”
Brodhead said that though he did not hear about the plan before the news release, he had heard the plan crossed Schoenfeld's desk back in October.
Although national media portrayed the amplification as echoing over campus—Time magazine said the call to prayer was to be “broadcast” from the bell tower—the original plan was actually quite modest. Students would climb to the top of the Chapel and chant the 60-second adhan while facing Islam’s holy city of Mecca; a small speaker on the Chapel quad would make the call audible on the ground.
Schoenfeld said the amplified sound likely would not have been audible past the bus stop—not even 500 feet from the Chapel.
“As we understood it, it was very, very small and not likely to be disruptive in any way," Moneta said, adding that the device used for the actual event was a "$12 RadioShack speaker."
Although administrators approved the plan weeks in advance, not everyone on campus was consulted, as one dean made clear. In a public letter on Jan. 15, Divinity School Dean Richard Hays called the call to prayer “ill-advised” and said he was not consulted or even notified in advance. Before allowing Muslims to make use of a place of Christian worship, he said the discussion “should take into careful account the perspective of millions of Christians living in Islamic societies where their faith is prohibited or persecuted.” Shortly before lamenting the threats directed at Duke, Hays listed Lohr Sapp’s email address and directed all questions to her.
Reactions came pouring in before Graham’s well-publicized Facebook posts, and they were not just negative ones. Powery said the Chapel heard a “wide range of perspectives… positive and negative.” Some people called to express their support for the move.
“Not everyone who expressed a concern I would classify as narrow-minded or bigoted," Schoenfeld said. "We heard from a number of constituents who had thoughtful and legitimate concerns about the use of the Chapel, about public displays of religion on campus.”
Before Graham's comments, questions came in from people who were actually affiliated with Duke, and many concerns were reasonable and respectfully expressed, Schoenfeld said.
By early February, Graham’s Jan. 14 Facebook status calling for a financial boycott of Duke had 80,000 likes, 10,000 comments and 62,000 shares. It was the post heard ‘round the world.
The call to prayer had escaped national attention before Graham’s remarks. A Google News search turns up exactly one story about the call to prayer from Tuesday Jan. 13, the day Duke publicly announced the plan. There were few—if any—Google searches related to “Duke call to prayer” that day, according to Google Trends.
Graham published his first Facebook post at 2:32 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 14, the proverbial first spark thrown onto a topic that became nothing short of incendiary. Volume of both news coverage and Google searches jumped exponentially. After Tuesday's announcement received virtually no media attention, Wednesday's headlines screamed “Franklin Graham Blasts Duke” and “Duke University Under Fire.”
Of course, reactions were not limited to Google searches.
“People who were motivated on this looked for every opportunity to call and email many offices around Duke,” Schoenfeld said. “I had 600 voicemails on my office voicemail before it turned over.”
Brodhead did not hear about the announcement until he walked into his office, where he said his office's phones were "ringing off the hook." Calls flooded into the Chapel, the Center for Muslim Life, admissions and even the hospital—such a deluge, Moneta said, that it tied up the hospital switchboard.
“People who were trolling for any place on campus were communicating to the patients’ visitor line at the hospital,” Moneta said. “People were just hungry to find a willing ear to complain to.”
A typical email I obtained was copied to over a dozen officials and staff, mostly at the Chapel. Like many others, it claimed persecution of Christians, and came from someone outside the Duke community.
“I don't know if I can even express my disappointment with the school for not only allowing this, but also to discriminate against Christians in allowing them to express their religious views,” the author wrote. “I would support any cause that rises up against this decision and I have the power of Jesus on my side. I wish I could say the same for Duke.”
The torrent of complaints did not end with Friday's adhan. Moneta said he had received yet another “full treatise of 30 pages” on our Feb. 3 interview—18 days after the original event.
“I didn’t personally get threats, just a smaller sampling of the external outrage,” Moneta said. “It’s not new to me, whether it’s when we hosted the Palestinian Solidarity Movement [in 2004], or any number of speakers on this campus.”
Schoenfeld noted that the University is not a stranger to criticism regarding events or speakers hosted on campus.
“We do controversial things all the time, and controversial things happen at Duke all the time,” he said. “Pick a number, pick a day.”
He added, however, that the "vehemence and outright nastiness" of the reactions to the call to prayer was worse than a typical speaker or event.
Anatomy of a compromise
“Basically what happened was panic,” Zeb said. “There’s no manual. You have to react to things in a very short amount of time.”
Wednesday was “a blur” with all the reactions flooding in, Moneta said.
“By Thursday afternoon, we’d already come to a conclusion of what needed to happen," Moneta said. "This was not one of these things that dragged on for days.”
Moneta identified the participants in the decisive Thursday morning meeting, referring to them as "the characters you would expect." Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanagh, Lohr Sapp, Moneta, Powery, Schoenfeld and Zeb were all present for the meeting.
“The response from Franklin Graham and his followers had zero to do with the decisions that Duke made,” Schoenfeld said.
Beyond that, however, Schoenfeld declined to give any details about the decision-making process.
“It’s going to serve no purpose to reconstruct individual conversations and who was involved," he added.
Some participants, however, were more forthcoming.
“The logical decisions were: cancel it, postpone it, or carry through with it,” Zeb said. “Postponing was going to cause more drama…. I thought that was the worst idea possible.”
Postponing would have meant another week of threats and negative attention, and the officials considered the security concerns serious enough that following the original plan was not an option. They sought a compromise that would support Muslim students while reducing the security risks.
Moneta said that though the Duke University Police Department was concerned about safety and would have had an easier job if the event were canceled, the department never backed down from the job.
“If Duke decides exposure is part of life in order to advance academic freedom and religious freedom, then our job is to protect that,” said Moneta, referring to DUPD's attitude toward providing additional security at the site of adhan.
Speaking a few days after the Super Bowl, Moneta said, “It was clear that we needed to, instead of advancing the ball 100 yards, advance the ball 50 yards.”
Moving the call to prayer emerged as a compromise that balanced the competing priorities, though it was far from ideal.
“The decision to move it from the bell tower... was probably a second-best decision," Zeb said.
Brodhead said his role in the deliberations was indirect. He learned about the plan from a student working in his office after the press release sparked the first reactions. He did not participate in the Thursday morning meeting, but he “was in intermittent touch” with the issue through Schoenfeld—they talked three or four times that day.
“I certainly do not hide from the fact that it was I who made the final decision,” Brodhead told me. “When the time came, it seemed to me unquestionable that the consequences had such a mismatch with the intention.”
Brodhead was aware of the security concerns, but they did not drive the decision. Rather, he thought the event “was not working as intended.”
Zeb said the Center for Muslim Life received threats, but declined to discuss specifics, citing a desire to avoid scaring students.
“There was definitely a security threat," he said. "There’s no doubt about that. We received threats at the Center for Muslim Life.”
The University stationed a police car outside the Center for Muslim Life and heightened security around the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Chapel for several days.
“Going to the [Center for Muslim Life] and seeing the police car there kind of secures you,” said senior Safa al-Saeedi, an MSA member from Yemen. “But it also signals the insecurity around you. Do I really need a car like this?”
CNN reported that the local FBI office was “made aware” of the security concerns. Schoenfeld declined to comment on the FBI’s role but said that “DUPD consulted with outside law enforcement.”
“There were significant and credible concerns about security expressed by law enforcement given the vehemence of the response,” he said.
DUPD closed down the Chapel early on the morning of the call to prayer. They locked every entrance and swept the building, stopping to look through suspicious boxes. A DUPD major told me after the event that there had not been a specific bomb threat directed at the Chapel, but it seemed they were taking precautions against the possibility.
Uniformed police officers with walkie-talkies watched over the actual call to prayer and the crowd of 400-500 supporters that gathered at the base of the Chapel. There appeared to be plainclothes police sprinkled in the crowd. Well after the crowd had dispersed, I saw two men who had been in the crowd join a uniformed female police officer on a bicycle. When I asked whether they were involved in security for the event, one of the men referred me to the DUPD public affairs officer.
Bowing to big money?
Top Duke officials were emphatic that financial considerations played absolutely no role in the decision to modify the call to prayer.
When I asked about donor influence, Brodhead was adamant.
“That’s absurd,” he said. “The notion that Duke would do something against its principles because of a donation is foreign to the thinking of this university. No serious donor of this university would ask or expect such a thing.”
After he stated it in general terms, I asked him to specifically confirm that no serious donor had asked for the change.
“I promise you,” he said, “I raise my hand and swear to you.”
Powery had a similar response. He said there was never an explicit mention of financial or donor concerns at any point when he was around the table—and he was present at the crucial meetings. However, when I asked what role financial considerations had played in the decision-making process, he talked around the question.
“I think there were many factors," he said. “That’s basically what I can say to it. There were a lot of considerations. That’s the reality of any complex institution.”
Zeb echoed this complexity when I asked him whether he was convinced the call to prayer was changed because of security reasons alone. He laughed a moment and chose his words carefully.
“I’m not saying that,” he said. “What I’m saying is that security reasons were definitely part of the equation.”
While Powery and Zeb—key players in the Allen building meetings—did not say that security was the only consideration, they gave me no reason to believe that donor influence played a role. Their comments left room for me to believe there were other considerations in addition to security.
Administrators, however, emphasized that the University is no stranger to controversy.
“In my line of work, I’ve been at the helm in lots of very challenging situations," Brodhead said. "I don’t believe in bowing to forces of intolerance.”
Both he and Moneta pointed to the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference that Duke hosted in Oct. 2004, just months into Brodhead’s presidency. It was not a universally popular decision, to say the least.
“I’ve seen our University withstand far greater assault from people who would claim that they’ll never fund again,” Moneta said. “I’ve done this for a long time. I’ve never seen Duke, I’ve never seen Duke make a change based on a donor concern. Ever. We’ve hosted no shortage of controversial things to which people claim that they will withhold their funding.”
Officials addressed concerns that the ongoing Duke Forward capital campaign might have weighed on the decision-making process. Referencing the $2.3 billion that has already been raised, Brodhead said donors do not support Duke so they can control its decisions but rather, “because they believe in the University, its ambitions and its importance to the future.”
“Here’s the thing: when you say donor influence—Duke raised $450 million last year," Schoenfeld said. "People who are committed to and invested in the University, are committed to and invested in the University regardless of what it does.”
I wanted hard answers to the question of donor influence, so I asked the question another way: “Do you think it would be fair to say that the decision was due to a combination of safety concerns and constituent or donor concerns?”
Schoenfeld responded, “You can keep calling it donor concerns, but that would be incorrect. There’s no single donor to Duke that could influence a decision like that.”
There have even been some positive financial effects after the call to prayer. The Chapel received many calls of support during the week of the event. One couple, which had never even met Zeb before, gave a donation in his honor.
Moneta told me about an influx of small donations since the event. “We have had so many $20 gifts in the last two or three weeks,” he said.
They may have totaled just a few hundred dollars, but their importance was more symbolic than financial.
What is the Chapel?
Most everyone I spoke with agreed that the call to prayer was such a controversial event and complicated issue because it involved Duke's iconic Chapel.
Powery said the building has a “three-fold” identity, as expressed in the Chapel's Sunday service bulletin: as a grand building suitable for hosting major events, as a moderator for the "diversity of religious identity and expression on campus" and as as a "Christian church of an unusually interdenominational character."
Zeb emphasized the iconic nature of the Chapel when we met.
"If you look at my ID, what's on the ID," Zeb posed. "Muslim students are paying tuition just like any other student. So why can't we use the Chapel?"
Moneta noted that Chapel simultaneously serves each of the three functions listed in the Sunday service bulletin, which caused different interpretations on how the Chapel could be used.
“No one should assume just the one role,” he said.
The Chapel is at once a Christian worship space, an interfaith facility and a secular university symbol. Like the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, its three identities are both distinct and indistinguishable. Christian, interfaith and secular: three and yet one, an unresolvable paradox at the heart of campus.
Although it might be entirely appropriate to invite a minority faith group to use the campus’s most prominent symbol or the most common space for interfaith prayer, many questioned the offer because the Chapel is a church in addition to a symbol and an interfaith space.
This objection about the Chapel’s use was expressed clearly in Hay's letter.
“Its architecture and iconography identify it unmistakably as a Christian place of worship,” Hays wrote, leading him to question the original plan’s “wisdom and propriety.”
On the other hand, some argue the Chapel is not technically a church.
Paul Griffiths, professor of Catholic theology at the Divinity School, argued that it cannot be considered a church even though it “looks awfully like a church.”
"[The Chapel is] owned lock, stock and barrel by the University, administered by the university, come[s] under the University bylaws and the dean is an employee of the university," he said. "[It] can’t be a church—if by church we mean something devoted uniquely to Christian worship owned and run by an ecclesial organization."
When I asked Powery whether the Chapel was or was not a church, he only replied, "Is church a building, or is it a people?"
In his Jan. 18 pastoral letter, he dispelled the idea of the Chapel as solely a church, affirming its role in offering “hospitality towards the diverse religious and cultural traditions of Duke students.”
In our interview, he also questioned the claim that architecture and iconography make a building a church. When I brought up that the Chapel is built in the shape of a cross, he replied, "crosses alone do not necessarily mean Christian. Think about burning crosses in the South and the KKK.”
While the three statues on your left as you climb the steps of the Chapel are figures from Christian history, the three statues on your right are figures from Southern history: Thomas Jefferson, the founding father who never freed his slaves; Sidney Lanier, a poet who criticized the North and parodied black American speech; and Robert E. Lee, the commander of Confederate forces in the Civil War. If the Chapel’s iconography mark it as sacred space, I would ask: Sacred space for whom?
The question of the Chapel’s identity and role on campus will not be answered by any discussions about the call to prayer.
“Every time we think we have answered the question, something comes up that reminds us that it will probably be one of those eternal questions," Schoenfeld said.