Note: This essay originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.
The proposal to proclaim the adhan or Muslim call to prayer from the top of Duke Chapel’s bell tower yesterday provoked a number of reactions. These ranged from the vitriolic and vengeful to the dismayed and discomforted. From the deluge of emails the university received and the long strings of comments posted after articles covering the issue appeared on websites, these overwhelmingly negative reactions came not just from Christians but also from Jews and those of no faith. One could have predicted that, in the current climate, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, any such action would provoke such a strong reaction. Yet it seems that those who initiated the proposal to proclaim the adhan did not anticipate it. An interesting feature of the situation is that the proposal did not come from Muslim student groups on Duke’s campus, but from the Chapel’s associate dean for religious life. Not anticipating the strong reaction seems to be why the wider university was not consulted or given advance notice of the plan, so there was little time to prepare for or reflect further on the ramifications of such an action. Yet, as with any such gesture, the action is in the reaction.
So what reaction did those who made this proposal seek? It had three aims. The first was to enable the ‘interreligious reimagining of a university icon’ by which was meant that the proclaiming of the adhan would demonstrate how different faith traditions can occupy the same shared space while still retaining their distinct identities. The second was to communicate ‘to the Muslim community that it is welcome’ at Duke. And the third was to challenge ‘media stereotypes of Muslims.’ It is an understatement to say these aims were not achieved. While the intentions were laudable, the reality is that the action generated a deeply counter-productive reaction that undermines all three of the stated aims.
What the action does raise is the question of how should we undertake inter-faith relations in a time when the relationship between different faiths and political life is under intense, often violent negotiation at a local, national, and international level throughout the world. This is no small matter. What should be the response for those who, like the leaders of Duke Chapel, are seeking to find a pro-active and constructive response to events in the world and thereby show a better way of fostering a peaceable common life? Is such a response best undertaken by religious professionals and specialists, and conceived of as a directly religious action, as happened at Duke? Or is it best to find ways to manage inter-faith relations from “above” by governments and the likes of university administrators? Or should such responses emerge from bottom up, peer-to-peer, relationally driven initiatives understood as forms of civic rather than religious practice?
The university is a microcosm of the broader public sphere in which these questions are being both constructively and negatively addressed. On campuses in the US and UK one observes three basic approaches to addressing religious diversity. The oldest is the establishment model. As a legacy of an institution’s history and customary practice, a confessionally Christian chapel has the status of being first among equals and is the means through which other traditions of belief and practice, notably Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, often gain access to university resources and are credentialized. In the case of Duke, the Chapel largely functions in this way. Religions on this model are seen to have a valid and important public institutional presence within the broader life of the institution as a whole.
The second approach is the partnership model. Rather than being incorporated into and being identified with the structures of the university, there is a partnership with a clearly identified and parallel religious institution that is independent of the university. In the Duke setting this is how the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church works. There is a formal agreement with the local diocese that forms the basis for all kinds of collaboration and gives a particular institutional status and legitimacy to Catholic student activities on campus. As with the Establishment model, religious belief and practice take public form through a confessional and institutional identity.
The third and most recent model is managerial. Unlike the previous two, the confessional identity and institutional form of the religious group concerned is entirely irrelevant. Religious beliefs and practices are treated as private and individual concerns of personal preference and are a matter for student services. Like debate club or the biology society, they are treated as just another timetabling and resource allocation issue. At Duke, Jewish Life and Muslim Life – the institutional configuration of Judaism and Islam at the university – are the under the auspices of student services.
These three approaches reflect wider responses by the caretakers of western liberal democracies in dealing with religious belief and practice in public. And each represents a different configuration of the public sphere. But what these “official” configurations don’t account for, and too often are blind to, are the convivial relations and connections between different faith groups and how they often collaborate together to address issues of common concern. Such convivial and cooperative relations are in a sense a religious phenomenon as they are born out of a desire to express deeply held religious commitments, but they are also an expression of a shared commitment to the good of the institution of which they are members. They entail simultaneously civic and religious practices.
Such relations are always unstable and, frankly, can be hard work for all concerned. Well-intentioned but often unilateral actions by “experts” and managers often undermine the fragile ecology within which they are sustained. What is intended as an act of public recognition for some, others experience as a scandalous act of religious vandalism. And in a globally wired world, the visceral sense of scandal escalates exponentially and can have untold repercussions thousands of miles away.
We should not be too quick to dismiss the sense of scandal such gestures generate. I have no doubt that much of the negative response to Duke this week was driven by racist and Islamphobic sentiments. At the same time, some of it was not. By customary practice if not by legal definition, the Chapel is a cherished place of Christian worship for many local residents, students, faculty and visitors. While this should not necessarily be determinative for all that the Chapel can and should be used for, to ignore those who cherish it in this way is deeply problematic. If we are to develop a robust public sphere – whether in a university or a nation-state – “progressives” and “conservatives” alike must do a better job becoming attuned to what each other holds sacred. Those who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo understood very well that they were not just murdering men and women, they were also desecrating a cherished form of sacred space within Western liberal democracy, one which embodies and represents freedom of speech. That is why that action provoked the reaction it did.
Attuning ourselves to what others hold to be sacred necessitates certain kinds of democratic practice (rather than legal or bureaucratic procedure). Certain kinds of democratic practice become vitally important for sustaining and developing convivial and constructive interfaith relations within a robust public sphere. The rule of thumb that forms the basis of parliamentary democracy from the thirteenth century onwards should be our watchword: what touches all ought to be tested by all. Following this rule in practice demands attentive listening and relationship building, even in the context of active disagreement and contention. It thereby helps ensure that our actions contribute to the formation of a shared life in which all may flourish, each in their own way.
Luke Bretherton is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His new book Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge University Press, 2015) examines how Christians, Jews and Muslims develop a common life through involvement in the democratic practices of community organizing and the lessons such experiences can have for thinking about citizenship in the contemporary context.