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"It Was the Highlight of My Time at Duke as a Muslim"

Danny Fowler/Flickr

Duke Chapel, the geographical and religious center of the campus in Durham, North Carolina, towered above a crowd of nearly five hundred students, faculty, and local residents huddled below it on a brisk, sunny Friday afternoon. An unfamiliar melody emanated from the steps of the chapel, its meek volume compelling silence from the crowd. How strange that so many people, both on campus and off, could feel so threatened by this soft, short call. 

Earlier that week, Duke University announced its plan to begin broadcasting the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, from the top of the Chapel. The ensuing controversy prompted Duke to reverse its decision. Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that "it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.” In a conciliatory effort, the university allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast from a small speaker just outside the Chapel, with the muezzin reciting the adhan from a microphone inside the Chapel, behind closed doors. 

In front of me stood my friend, Reem Alfahad, whose smile and lavender hijab graced the website of the campus newspaper that morning after she was named one of the eight semi-finalists for the young trustee election, the only Muslim woman to run for any major campus election during my three years at Duke. People approached her, embraced her. “I’m with you,” they said.

For Alfahad, this past week has been a surreal experience of feeling seen, for better or worse. She said that while her hijab has always been a marker of her identity, it has never felt so heavy on her head. 

“I felt like my Duke identity did not have space for my Muslim identity or my home identity, because it’s so easy to fracture yourself and try to subscribe to what images of success you have. For me, the image of a successful Duke student did not feel compatible with my culture,” Alfahad said. “But we deny the fact that every identity has contradictions.”

Indeed, over the past week the many contradictions within the Duke community became apparent—and were subjected to national scrutiny. 

Dr. Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life at Duke since 2010, was central in the decision to broadcast the adhan from the bell tower. “I think it offers this community a statement on the fact that it’s okay to practice your faith if you want to,” she said. “When we talk about religious plurality, what we mean is giving space to people who orient around religion differently to interact in the public square as they see themselves, as they identify.” Richard Hays, dean of the Divinity School, disavowed the plan in a letter to the school, questioning “the wisdom and propriety of allowing Duke Chapel to be used for this purpose,” prompting some his school's students to gather outside the Chapel bearing signs that read “Let us worship together” and “Duke Divinity supports you.” 

On Facebook, students and alumni expressed their support for the adhan, but vulgar comments surfaced on YikYak, an anonymous social platform popular among students on campus, including a suggestion of protesting the adhan by performing sodomy on the chapel steps. On Fox News’ "Hannity," Duke junior Johnathan Zhao said, “I am thankful the university has reconsidered their decision to play the Muslim call to prayer every Friday and they have heard the voice of not only students, but also alumni and the public at large.”

There is a seeming limitlessness to the Duke community. Sure, there are a few thousand undergraduate and graduate students who occupy this space, in addition to professors, administrators, and staff. But a nearby medical complex full of doctors, nurses, researchers, and patients also share our name. Donors and alumni remind us of their stake in this community whenever a big fundraising campaign rolls around. Just last year, another university bearing our name opened its doors in Kunshan, China. And when we play a basketball game, it’s not just students who adorn themselves in “Duke blue,” but also countless people around the nation, a large part of whom have likely never set foot on this campus. At a controversial moment like this one, it can feel like everyone is making a claim to some part of the Duke community.

How can such a community represent all the multitudes it contains? The Muslim community has to ask itself this question whenever ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Boko Haram claim to represent the entirety of their faith, just as I and many others must ask ourselves this question when anti-Islam radicals burn Qur’ans in our own country or across the world. The temptation is to say “that is not me, that is not my community,” but it’s far more difficult to say “that is me, that is my community.”

While observing the adhan on Friday, my phone was buzzing with notifications from email, Facebook, and Twitter about the event. #IllPrayWithYou lit up my feed. The campus radio station, WXDU, broadcast the adhan. 

“It was the highlight of my time at Duke as a Muslim,” Nourhan Elsayed, a junior, said. “My very presence already says so much because of my hijab, so it meant a lot to me that others could speak with their presence by attending the adhan.”

Thabit Pulak, a first-year student and practicing Muslim, said, “Seeing the Duke University crowd support us at this time was definitely a time in which I was proud, and incredibly happy to be a Muslim in the Duke community.”

The adhan outside the chapel did not cure Duke of Islamophobia. Friends in administrative offices tell me that threatening and derogatory phone calls and emails continue to bombard them. A police car is stationed outside the Center for Muslim Life. And Alfahad, in her campaign to win one of the most contested positions on campus, now wonders whether her religious and ethnic identity will cost her. But for a brief moment on Friday afternoon, we could say it: This is me. This is my community.