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The culture wars come to Duke

University fight over Muslim call-to-prayer shows the challenges of our secular age

January 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

More shots were fired last week in America’s never-ending culture wars. Duke University’s decision to allow the use of the chapel bell tower for the adhan, or Muslim call-to-prayer, provoked angry reactions from Franklin Graham, the evangelist son of preacher Billy Graham, and the conservative blogosphere. Faced with credible threats of violence, Duke swiftly reversed its decision. The call-to-prayer must now be issued from the quad in front of the chapel rather than from its bell tower.

That such an incendiary conflict could arise from what was intended as a gesture of Christian hospitality toward Muslim students illustrates how jittery interfaith relations have become. While some observers will no doubt see this controversy as simply another skirmish between the staunchly religious right and an ostensibly areligious academy, it is more significant for what it reveals about the spiritual tensions and cross-pressures in the lives of ordinary religious people striving to be faithful to their traditions in a world in which no tradition is assured of dominance.

The initial decision to allow the adhan to be broadcast from the bell tower is explained by Christy Lohr Sapp, Duke’s associate dean of religious life, in an op-ed published Jan. 14 in The Raleigh News and Observer. Islam, she argues, is unfairly associated with its radical, violent fringe in American media, and Duke’s new policy highlighted the “prayerful and peaceful” face of the Islamic majority for the public. The novel use of the bell tower as a minaret “allows for the interreligious reimagining of a university icon,” fitting with Duke’s commitment to religious pluralism.

Those opposed to the move condemned it for allegedly turning a church into a mosque, exposing a liberal preference for Islam in the public square at a time when Christian voices are being marginalized, enabling Muslims to evangelize on a nonsectarian campus and encouraging the spread of radical Islam, maliciously identified with the religion as a whole. The most bellicose rhetoric came from Franklin Graham, who, in a Facebook post, associated the words “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) with terrorism and called on donors and alumni to withdraw their support from the university. In a later interview, Graham described Duke Chapel as a “desecrated” space because of its acceptance of non-Christian traditions. Richard Hays, the dean of Duke Divinity School, provided more measured criticism, writing in a letter to the seminary community that the decision was “ill-advised” because of its global implications and because of the incompatibility between Christian and Islamic beliefs about such matters as the Trinity and the relative significance of Jesus and Muhammad. At the same time, he affirmed the university’s support of all faith traditions and noted the importance of Christian-Muslim dialogue and the study of Islam in the seminary. 

If we emphasize our unique religious identities, do we lose something in the way of interfaith charity? If we strive to be charitable, do we risk diluting our most cherished convictions?

Officially a nonsectarian university, Duke was founded as a Methodist institution, and its divinity school is one of 13 seminaries supported by the United Methodist Church. Duke Chapel — with its neo-Gothic architecture, stained-glass windows depicting biblical stories, large wooden cross in the center of its chancel, sculptures of famous American Methodists above its portal and vibrant interdenominational congregation — is a distinctly Christian worship space, where particular Christian theological doctrines are physically embodied. This, Hays noted, renders problematic its symbolic conflation with Islam in a call-to-prayer from the bell tower. Most Muslims would no doubt feel similarly uncomfortable about the opening verses of the Gospel of John, which proclaim the incarnation of God in Christ (an idea offensive to Islamic religious sensibilities) being read from a mosque’s minaret. And yet this explicitly Christian building is also used by Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists for their religious services. Duke Chapel is both unequivocally Christian and inclusive of people of all faiths. How are these seemingly contradictory identities to be reconciled?

The irresolvable tensions between Duke Chapel’s adherence to its Christian roots and its attempt to accommodate other faith traditions is a mirror of the situation in which most contemporary religious people in the West find themselves. We no longer live in an age of certainty, bound together with others like us in shielded religious communities where our most deeply held beliefs are taken for granted. Instead we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “secular age.” Secularity for Taylor does not necessarily entail a rejection of religious faith but rather means a state of “contested belief,” in which any religion is regarded as one option among many mutually overlapping religious and secular ways of life. We live and work with people of other religions. Sometimes they are our friends. Sometimes they are our family members or lovers or spouses or even members of our own worshipping communities. We share their beliefs, practices and experiences. We hear our own spiritual yearnings articulated in their prayers, liturgies and sacred texts. Hence we cannot help feeling torn between our loyalty to a particular faith tradition and a sense of obligation to be open to others.

But this often feels like a zero-sum game. If we emphasize our unique religious identities, do we lose something in the way of interfaith charity? If we strive to be charitable, do we risk diluting our most cherished convictions? How we achieve both identity and openness depends on tentative, contingent judgments that are not always bereft of anguish or ambiguity. Duke might use this opportunity to foster dialogue between campus Christians and Muslims on precisely these issues.

Recent attacks and waves of anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and the United States are not the best portents of interfaith cooperation. Yet in this age of contested belief, many religious believers regard the interaction between people of different faiths in modern, democratic societies as a friendly contest rather than an outright war. Whatever our opinion may be about using a Christian bell tower as a minaret or any other seeming violation of previously impermeable religious boundaries, the West is never going to return to a religiously monolithic Christendom, and it is unlikely to arrive at a religiously decontaminated secular utopia. Voices full of passionate intensity declare that we must choose between imagining no religion and imagining only one. But these are false choices. We must choose instead to learn how to live with our differences.  How we do so is a work in progress. 

Ian Curran is a Methodist theologian who teaches world religions at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He has a master’s degree in theological studies from Duke University and a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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