A call to worship, and a call to educate


Duke University’s decision last week not to allow Muslim students to use the campus chapel’s bell tower for Friday afternoon call to prayer, or adhan, after announcing three days before that it would permit it, is more than a capitulation to the strident calls of critics. It is a missed, or at least transformed, opportunity to do what colleges and universities are meant to do: educate.

Timing is everything. The Duke controversy erupted the same week that the slain satirists of Charlie Hebdo and the Paris kosher market were buried; Nigeria’s Boko Haram was accused of murdering thousands and imprisoning hundreds of women and children; and European police arrested more than two dozen terrorist suspects across at least four countries. In an atmosphere where fear is surging worldwide, it is little wonder that Duke, a university with Methodist roots, would be flamed in the media for permitting the Muslim call to prayer from its famous chapel tower.

Nonetheless, the university’s initial gesture deserves our attention because versions of Duke’s accommodation are occurring all across the country, indeed the world, wherever colleges and universities have replaced myths of religion’s irrelevance with a commitment to meeting students where they are in their faith journeys. Religious pluralism implies real-life accommodation to people of all faith traditions, and to those with none. And in 2015, how we treat our Muslim students is, for better or worse, an indicator of our commitment to religious pluralism on our campuses.

Elmhurst College, where I work, has named faith, meaning, and values as central to our students’ growth as individuals, as persons with distinct points of view who nonetheless are part of a complex and diverse community—just like the world they will enter on graduation. Everything we do is geared toward student growth and professional preparation as the origin and end of classroom enlightenment. Education involves helping undergraduates become intelligent consumers and producers of culture, especially when they are consuming ideas about the nature of reality: philosophies, ideologies, religious beliefs, their own and those of others.

After all, we do not ask students to accept the natural world as they understood it at age 7, or appreciate only the music they loved as middle schoolers. Neither should we assume a grade-school religious education satisfies the intellectual and emotional needs of young adults.

If we invite students to reflect on faith, to examine their own beliefs as they learn about religious and philosophical traditions other than their own, we should not be surprised when they respond by seeking accommodations for their religious practices. Informed and motivated students, such as those at Duke, may ask with increasing frequency to use campus sacred spaces in nontraditional ways that nonetheless align with our stated missions.

If students are taking to heart the value of pluralism and interfaith engagement that so many colleges espouse, we owe it them to think very carefully and to deliberate long with many campus constituents, including students, faculty, board members and administrators, before deciding whether to change the status quo. Duke’s community apparently did that, but as one official was quoted as saying, \”It’s clear it should have gone on for a little bit longer.\”

But having weighed the costs of change, we should be prepared to act boldly and to err on the side of reasonable, mission-based accommodation, and then to stick with our decision (and with our students), absent compelling evidence that we got it wrong. Perhaps Duke’s decision to rescind permission was based on such evidence, especially if public safety was at risk. As a president, I am acutely aware that public controversies can turn ugly and sometimes generate unintended adverse consequences.

Perhaps, with longer conversations in the Duke community, such concerns can be addressed, and—who knows?—the chapel tower may yet become a weekly minaret. Already supporters of interfaith engagement and religious accommodation can take satisfaction in seeing the hundreds of people who turned out last Friday for the weekly adhan, held on the university’s quad outside the chapel to make a show of support for the university’s Muslim community. Such a gathering can be a catalyst for its own kind of learning.

Regardless of how the Duke controversy plays out, we must remain clear on the goal: not a false universalism but a true, though often messy, pluralism. Duke said it reversed itself because its attempt \”to unify was not having the intended effect.\” I question whether unity is the goal we should pursue when we agree to religious accommodations. For secular institutions, and many religious ones, the goal might better be a multiplicity of forms of religious observance, some congruent with each other, others not. But in making any religious accommodation, our overarching criterion must be an affirmative answer to the question: \”Are we educating?\”

Author Bio: S. Alan Ray is president of and a professor of religion and society at Elmhurst College.