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Muslim call to prayer at Duke resonates with a scholar who studies sound in religious life

The controversy sparked when Duke University announced they would amplify a weekly Muslim call to prayer from the chapel’s bell tower — a decision they canceled two days later, citing violent threats — resonated with Isaac Weiner. 

Weiner,  an assistant professor at Ohio State University — and a percussionist — recently wrote a book about sound in religious life. After the call to prayer echoed on campus Friday, after all, although not from the tower, gathering hundreds of supporters, he wrote his thoughts about why the call to prayer caused such strong reactions for people on all sides of the issue:

There is a well-worn cliché popular among scholars of sound that it is easier to close one’s eyes than one’s ears. Whether true or not, it speaks to the idea that sounds demand our attention more insistently than do sights. When confronted by something we don’t want to see, we know that we can just look away. But when we hear something we don’t like, we often feel compelled to respond.

I was reminded of this again recently as I read about Duke University’s decision first to allow and then not allow Muslim students to broadcast the adhan, or call to prayer, from the prominent bell-tower at the heart of campus. Muslim students have been praying at Duke for decades, and women wearing headscarves are as ubiquitous there as they are at other American universities such as Ohio State, where I teach.

Yet it was the decision to amplify the adhan that elicited such uproar from those who feel anxious about how America’s religious landscape is changing.

It was the adhan that generated such outcry from those who perceive in Islam only a dangerous threat to American society. For them, the public broadcast of the adhan seemed particularly intrusive, stridently announcing Islamic presence and demanding some kind of response.

Sound has often been at the center of controversy about religion’s place in American life. In my book, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism” (NYU Press, 2014) I examine a number of disputes similar to the one at Duke, involving sounds, such as church bells, public preaching, and the call to prayer.

I was intrigued by how religious diversity has transformed what we see and hear in public, and how these new sights and sounds have regularly given rise to conflict.

I began this project in Hamtramck, Mich., a historically Polish-Catholic enclave of Detroit, which rose to national prominence in 2003 when its city council granted permission to a small Bangladeshi mosque to broadcast the adhan from speakers atop its roof. The council defended its action in the name of pluralism, but opponents were angered by what they perceived as the inappropriate intrusion of Islamic practice into public space.

The parallels with the Duke incident are striking. It turns out that noise often marks the limit of what Americans are willing to tolerate.

Our assumptions about who has the right to be heard in public speak powerfully to who we think we are as Americans.

Are we a Christian nation that begrudgingly puts up with the presence of others, expecting them to remain seen but not heard? Are we a secular society where all are expected to keep their religious commitments quietly to themselves? Or are we a pluralistic society in which everyone is invited to participate equally in the public square, even if the resulting noise can sometimes sound cacophonous?

The debate at Duke makes evident how unresolved these fundamental questions remain.

Yet what I find most interesting about the adhan controversy is how all parties implicitly agreed that the call to prayer, at this time and in this place, could not simply be a call to prayer. It was inevitably something more. It signaled the growing “threat” posed by Islam to the West, or the as yet unfulfilled promise of American pluralism. It announced the de-centering of American Christianity or rang out with the harmonies of interfaith cooperation.

In either case, its ritual function was drowned out by its symbolic significance. It could not be merely an invitation to Muslims to pray.

Given the high profile media coverage devoted to recent events such as the massacre at the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, it seems obvious that the adhan would necessarily be heard in these ways. But we should not lose sight of what this says about the precarious position Muslims occupy in American society, for it is not the way we listen to all religious sounds. Not all sounds are invested with the same kind of symbolic significance. Not all sounds are even particularly noticeable. For despite the cliché with which I began, it is not true that all public sounds command our attention in the same way.

In fact, it is usually those sounds that are most familiar to us that we fail to notice at all.

Consider, for obvious example, how many of those who complained about the adhan at Duke gave little thought to the bells that regularly ring out from the top of the university’s tower. Across the United States, church bells often sound so commonplace, so mundane, so normal, that they hardly elicit any response at all. Even the most ardent secularists rarely find cause to complain about them, so their chimes are allowed to fade unnoticeably into the background of our daily lives. Their presence is pervasive, yet unremarkable, and it is precisely this failure to attract attention that makes their public power so pronounced.

We are clearly not yet at that place with the adhan. Given the political moment in which we live, we cannot but notice its call. We cannot but invest it with deep symbolic significance, whether positive or negative. Yet I look forward to a time when broadcasting the call to prayer might seem thoroughly unremarkable, hardly worthy of public comment. I look forward to a time when non-Muslims might not feel compelled to celebrate or condemn it, but simply to ignore it, to not pay it any attention at all. I look forward to a time when the call to prayer is merely a call to Muslims to pray.

Until then, symbolic gestures such as those proposed at Duke are probably necessary, and it is disappointing that even such modest measures generate such controversy. I, for one, found the community gatherings held on Friday in support of the university’s Muslim students to be quite moving.

Yet how much more powerful will it be when the adhan does not demand the attention of American pluralists at all? How much more powerful will it be when the muezzin’s call has become no more — or less — remarkable than the mundane ringing of church bells, whose chimes regularly resound throughout our neighborhoods?

Paradoxically perhaps, I believe that Muslim acceptance in America will eventually be signaled not by communal celebrations of the adhan, but by it not needing our public affirmation at all. When the adhan has faded into the background, Muslims will be better able to make themselves heard.

(This post has been lightly edited.)