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Mitra '18: Separate and (un)equal

This year marks the 51st anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which heralded the end of de jure segregation in the United States. The phrase “separate but equal” is now an infamous but distant memory in our collective psyche, synonymous with a darker era. Unfortunately, movements to reinstitute subtle divides still exist in society and on college campuses. They now seem, however, to be geared toward separating religion as well as race.

In January, I watched in amazement as Duke University yielded to political intimidation and surrendered its commitment to religious tolerance. Initially, the Duke Chapel and the Muslim Students Association had announced a plan to broadcast the Adhan — or Islamic call to prayer — from the Chapel bell tower every Friday. This plan was designed to enforce ideals of religious pluralism and support the university’s growing Muslim community.

But the announcement was greeted with anger and fear. Many criticized it as a desecration of Christian faith. Some interpreted the move as an unnecessary concession to a “radical” minority — illogically linking radical Islam to the whole faith — and felt it would undermine the school’s religious identity. In the face of considerable backlash and threats to the Center for Muslim Life, the Duke administration decided to reverse the decision, CNN reported Jan. 16. No Adhans have been broadcast from the Chapel bell tower.

The criticism against the weekly call demonstrated a new resurgence of explicit campus inequality. The Adhan is not a new and suspicious practice but an established ritual recited quietly before prayer on Fridays. It would not have interfered with Christian practices, as it was scheduled for Friday afternoons.

Moreover — like Brown, which has held Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies in the Manning Chapel for years, according to the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life — Duke has a strong tradition of holding a multitude of diverse religious ceremonies in a traditionally Christian building. The Adhan should not have been considered an unwanted encroachment on the sanctity of the Duke Chapel, but rather a simple way for Muslims to fulfil the requirements of prayer.

Having grown up in Singapore and been taught the ideas of secularism and tolerance, I was taken aback by the vehement rhetoric against religious expression. And the objections on social media bore a suspicious likeness to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Protesters argued that though the Muslims were free to pray, they couldn’t possibly use a Christian structure in a Christian university. In other words, they were meant to be “separate” but of course “equal.”

In comparing the opposition to the Muslim prayer with the Jim Crow laws, I am not trying to belittle the enormous scar left behind by this nation’s murky past. The controversy at Duke cannot rival the scale of the atrocities committed during the time of institutionalized segregation. If we have truly learned from our mistakes, however, we should not condone anything akin to discrimination, and the arguments put forth by the protesters were Islamophobic in the extreme.

As I read the comments of protesters, I was struck by the poorly disguised hypocrisy hidden behind a veneer of tolerance. Duke is a Methodist university, but, like any other American institution, it is bound by the secular principles that govern the nation. By rejecting the right of Muslims to pray publicly, protesters disrespected an aggrieved community and disregarded the fundamental freedoms they claimed to promote.

The anti-Islamic rhetoric also sets a dangerous precedent for hostility and violence. The Feb. 10 killing of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is an unfortunate product of this marginalization and hate. 

The Duke administration also responded poorly after canceling the scheduled Adhan due to alarming threats. Duke’s subsequent treatment of members of the Muslim Students Association bordered on inconsiderate. Delaying the broadcast would have been understandable given the potential for violence, but dismissing the entire proposal added insult to injury. Duke officials failed to offer an appropriate alternative and unceremoniously reverted to the earlier system, in which the call to prayer was recited privately. This calls into question their priorities and their commitment to the more than 700 Muslims in the Duke community. 

But from a more objective standpoint, the controversy at Duke provides an opportunity to reexamine secular principles on campuses across the country. The basic premise of religious equality ensures freedom of expression and assembly and prevents any religion from gaining control of the state. Yet religious equality should also promote a spirit of collective integration and cooperation among religions.

Yes, the Chapel is a sacred place that should be treated with the utmost respect, but it shouldn’t be sacrilegious for another religious group to use the building to pray. Nor should it be blasphemous to announce a call to prayer from the bell tower. And it certainly shouldn’t be offensive for passers-by to hear a handful of Arabic words once a week. Instead of threatening the Center for Muslim Life, protesters should have respectfully raised their concerns and, if necessary, found a suitable alternative.

Could such a crisis occur on Brown’s liberal and inclusive campus? I would like to think that Brown is exempt from the growing religious intolerance I see around me, but I am not so sure. It seems naive to think that Brown can escape the religious divide apparent in many other towns and on many other campuses.

In the coming months, I would love to see Brown set a positive example and succeed where Duke shockingly failed. Let us proudly take part in events like the recent World Hijab Day. Perhaps we can celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali with lights and fireworks in the center of the Main Green. If nothing else, let us embrace religious pluralism and prove that it is not tantamount to the end of religion.


Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at


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