Duke’s questionable return to religious roots

No symbol of recently inflamed Islamophobia was more poignant than the Duke University administration’s decision not to hold a Muslim prayer call from the Duke Chapel. The decision, which was likely a political one determined by the complex web of relationships between school administrators and trustees, hardly has any real justification beyond its hidden, bigoted motives.

To clarify, a few weeks prior, Muslim students requested that a call to prayer be broadcasted via a speakerphone atop Duke’s chapel. The school is home to several hundred Muslim students who have been provided with limited space to practice their faith. The administration granted them this opportunity, but had to retract their decision after benefactors such as Franklin Graham threatened to withdraw funding from the school. Those who have joined Graham in threats of withholding funds and supporters ought to know three things.

First, with 14,000 students and an incredible amount of diversity, Duke is a religious school by title and motto only. Duke is a Methodist school, but the school’s vast range of ethnic and religious backgrounds makes it effectively a secular school. Trying to limit non-Judean-Christian values is not only a bigoted, but fruitless endeavor.

Second, while the Methodist tradition holds piety and education in equal regard, the schools supported by the Methodist schools aren’t strictly Christian schools and certainly are not exclusive towards people of non-Christian faiths.

Third, Graham should ask himself what it is he hopes to accomplish with the wealth and influence he’s earned over his lifetime. Is threatening a school, a place of free thought and dialogue, to defend your own private reservations against an entire religion really an honorable endeavor?

If Duke University is going to provide a secular curriculum to a vast body of non-Methodist students and still provide resources and a safe space for practicing Methodist Christians, they ought to also provide those same spaces and resources to people of other faiths who may request the same. If Duke’s going to ring church bells for Sunday service, they ought to allow Muslims to broadcast their call to prayer as well.

Across the Duke Campus, there are massive, symbolic reminders of Duke’s Methodist roots. The Methodist tradition of valuing education and piety equally are not symbols of Christian evangelism. Those symbols are there to tell passersby that Duke was founded by Christians devoted to education, not educators devoted to Christ. Thus, the benefactors of Duke University that are forcing Duke to discriminate against Muslims have a seriously misguided interpretation of Methodist traditions.

Universities are places where young people go to expose themselves to new ideas, new ways of thinking and, perhaps most importantly, people with different values than their own. A university should be a place free of the bigotry towards Islam that many Americans shamelessly practice. Unfortunately, the Duke Chapel controversy will remain an ugly addition to the discrimination towards Muslims that American society has practiced in the post 9/11 era.