Wake Forest University’s president took a public stand Wednesday in support of the school’s imam, who has been targeted by an alumni campaign labeling him a radical jihadist and calling for a boycott of donations.
The ongoing debate over the role of Islam in U.S. life has in the past several weeks flared up in a 100-mile span of North Carolina, where the state’s four most prominent colleges have each been affected either by tragedy or controversy.
Last month nearby Duke University canceled plans to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from its iconic chapel bell tower after a backlash; while supporters called the initiative inclusive, opponents pointed to recent terrorist attacks overseas, and questioned why the school would choose such a prominent Christian place of worship for the call.
And Muslims around the world rallied around three North Carolina students who were shot Tuesday night in Chapel Hill. Police said initial investigations suggested a long-running dispute between neighbors over parking. But many interpreted it as an anti-Islamic crime, saturating social media with messages such as #MuslimLivesMatter.
Imam Khalid Griggs was named Associate Chaplain for Muslim Life at Wake Forest in 2010. At the time, the university president’s Nathan Hatch, a nationally known theologian said, “This position will promote an even broader dialogue among people of different faith traditions and encourage a greater awareness of differing beliefs, both of which are critical to enriching the quality of our campus community.”
But for several years now, Griggs has been under attack, with a sustained campaign led by one alumnus and an organization questioning his background and his beliefs.
In a letter to tens of thousands of alumni, Don Woodsmall (who graduated from the university and its law school) wrote, in part, “No one is taking issue with the University providing its Muslim students with the same sort of spiritual support enjoyed by others. As we all know, Wake Forest was founded as a religious school. But Wake Forest did a dangerous disservice to its students, its alumni and its reputation by whom they hired to fill that position. …
“Imam Grigg’s background is disturbing and problematic, to put it mildly,” Woodsmall, now a Charlottesville resident, wrote. “The Imam is a jihadist. …He is also an active supporter of Sharia Law – the theocratic doctrine that says Islamic law supersedes the U.S. Constitution and that actively subjugates and denigrates the value and rights of women, infidels and homosexuals. We believe such disregard for basic human rights and equality should be exposed and debated, not hidden.”
He called for a debate over sharia law and whether it is compatible with American Constitutional principles, and asked alumni to withhold donations until that were publicly addressed by the university.
Many alumni called the university, confused and concerned.
Until now, “We have found the allegations of this alumnus unmerited and his methods inappropriate, and we elected not to provide him a platform,” Hatch wrote in his public statement. “However, a recent escalation of his tactics requires a public response.
“I want Wake Forest students, faculty, staff and alumni to know where their institutional leadership stands – in full support of Imam Griggs.”
A leader of the school’s alumni association responded to questions Tuesday with a letter from Griggs, which said, in part, that “when I accepted the position of Associate Chaplain at Wake Forest in 2010, I could not have imagined that Islam, and the ethos of the overwhelming majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, would be so maligned and attacked as it has been. Unspeakable acts of extremist elements accompanied by corresponding media frenzy fuel fear in our society every day.”
He wrote that he supports the government of the U.S. and has never advocated, nor would he support, violence against it. “Shariah Law is simply the laws of Muslim society based on the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah (Prophetic Traditions) of Muhammad ibn Abdullah. Shariah Law covers prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, beliefs, and every aspect of Islamic belief and practice. Actions by groups purporting to enforce Shariah Law through violence are actually carrying out outrages that are the antithesis of Shariah Law.”
He said the term “jihad,” has been “co-opted by terrorists as the justification for their violence. In truth, properly understood, it has a more personal meaning. The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, said that the greatest jihad (or “struggle”) was conquering one’s desires to do things that God forbids. … I want people to know that I have repeatedly and publicly denounced violent acts in the name of Islam and decry a tendency to blame all Muslims for the extremist actions of a few.”
A professor of religion and culture at Catholic University, Wilhelmus “Pim” Valkenberg, said the situation “is another example and a classic case of ‘guilty by association.’ Almost every Muslim can be associated with organizations that have sometimes supported goals that are supported as well by other organizations that can be associated with ‘radical Islam.'” He said he has studied movements such as Hizmet whose founders have been made suspect in very similar ways. “These are all people who want to build bridges between what is often called ‘Islam and the West.’ Since they are seen as more dangerous than ‘radical Muslims,’ there are more websites devoted to defeating their causes. This is one of the examples of the influence of the Internet on the discussion about Islam.”
Woodsmall said, “All I’m asking for is a rational debate. That’s what great universities are supposed to do — debate the issues.” He said school officials didn’t know Griggs’ background and support of extremist Muslim organizations, and are trying to cover it up.
“Over three years now, no one has ever said, ‘Your facts are wrong,'” he said. “I just ask people to look at the facts. … We here in American live by our principles of tolerance, inclusion, diversity…. it makes it very difficult to understand what we’re up against in the Middle East, North Africa. It’s so alien to how we think. It’s hard to understand what’s motivating so many people in so many attacks.”
In November, someone placed a container of urine outside Griggs’ office.
Students then led a campaign to leave flowers outside his door, said Katie Neal,a spokesperson for the university; she sent a photo from that time. “There’s so much fear out there,” she said, “that it’s important that people understand the importance of inter-faith collaboration.”
Griggs said by phone Wednesday evening that the campaign against him had distorted his character, his role at the university and the organizations which he had supported, and that that was not unique to Wake Forest; it echoes a pattern across the country, he said, of attacks on imams and mosques.
Woodsmall said Wednesday afternoon, “I hope that enough alumni will withhold their donations then send their email back to hold the debate that the administration will say, ‘What are we running from? Let’s have a rational debate.'”
He’s just getting started, he said; he had only sent emails to alums from the 1940s through the 1970s, whose addresses were easy to find. “I’ve still got 45 years of alumni to go.”
Imam Khalid Griggs with flowers people left at his office after someone left a container of urine there. (Photo credit: Ken Bennett / Wake Forest University)