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|Islam reading assignment draws fire|
|08/08/02 at 10:48:02|
|Islam reading assignment draws fire |
University faces lawsuit for assigning book to freshmen
By Alan Cooperman
THE WASHINGTON POST
Aug. 7 — No one complained two years ago when the University of North Carolina required its incoming freshmen to read a book about the lingering effects of the Civil War, nor last year when it assigned a book about a Hmong immigrant’s struggle with epilepsy and American medicine.
BUT THIS YEAR, the university in Chapel Hill is asking all 3,500 incoming freshmen to read a book about Islam and finds itself besieged in federal court and across the airwaves from Christian evangelists and other conservatives.
The university chose “Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations” by Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford College, because of intense interest in Islam since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said UNC Chancellor James Moeser.
“We’re obviously not promoting one religion,” Moeser told concerned university trustees last month. “What more timely subject could there be?”
But a national TV talk show host, Fox News Network’s Bill O’Reilly, compared the assignment to teaching “Mein Kampf” in 1941 and questioned the purpose of making freshmen study “our enemy’s religion.”
ACADEMIC FREEDOM VS. MORAL EDUCATION
To the university’s faculty and some students, the dispute is about upholding UNC’s tradition of academic freedom. To the university’s critics, it’s about maintaining America’s moral backbone in the war on terrorism. And to other schools and educators across the country, it has a double lesson: demand for lectures and courses on Islam is higher than ever, but so is the sensitivity of the topic.
President Bush and other U.S. leaders across the political spectrum have repeatedly said that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam or the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. Academic experts are usually careful to distinguish among widely divergent strains of Islam, including a few that condone violence and many that don’t.
But some evangelical Christian leaders — including the Rev. Franklin Graham, who gave the invocation at Bush’s inauguration — have denounced Islam since Sept. 11 as an “evil” religion. Despite the furor those remarks have caused, Graham repeated in radio and television appearances this week that the Koran preaches violence and that terrorism is supported by “mainstream” Muslims around the world.
The controversy at UNC is a reflection of these unresolved questions and continuing distrust toward Islam among many Americans, a distrust so great that even reading the Koran seems a seditious act to some. To others, studying Islam is all right — as long as it is taught their way.
The lawsuit against UNC was filed July 22 in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., by the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, which calls itself a socially conservative Christian educational organization.
The suit contends that it is unconstitutional for a publicly funded university to require students to study a specific religion. But the Family Policy Network’s president, Joe Glover, also argues that “Approaching the Qur’an” is “a one-sided presentation of Islam that entirely leaves out Suras 4, 5 and 9 of the Koran” — the passages that contain exhortations to kill infidels and that have served as inspiration or justification for some terrorists.
“If the chancellor were to come out and be honest, he would say, ‘We’re trying to put a good face on Islam,’ ” Glover said. “If he said that, at least I wouldn’t think he was being disingenuous.”
Carl W. Ernst, a professor of religious studies at UNC who recommended “Approaching the Qur’an” as summer reading for freshmen, said Glover is the one with a biased view of Islam.
“It’s easy to take phrases out of context from any sacred book,” Ernst said. “This is part of a long history of anti-Islamic bias that is akin to anti-Semitism or even racism.”
UNIVERSITY ABRIDGES ASSIGNMENT
In response to the uproar, the university last month amended the assignment. Instead of writing a one-page paper about the book, students who object to the reading can skip it and bring a one-page paper explaining their objections to campus on Aug. 19, when groups of 20 to 25 freshmen are to discuss the book in two-hour, non-credit seminars. But that concession has not halted the denunciations on talk radio or the deluge of angry e-mails to UNC officials, mostly from people who have no association with the university, Provost Robert N. Shelton said.
Since Sept. 11, Islamic studies are “very hot,” in both senses of the word, said Sells, the editor and translator of “Approaching the Qur’an.”
“It’s different in degree and kind from the rise of interest that occurred during the Khomeini revolution or the oil crisis,” he said. “I probably gave 50 lectures this year outside the university. The audiences that would have been 20 people last year were 200 people this year. The audiences that would have been 40 are now 400.”
Sells and other scholars say publishers are reissuing long out-of-print books on Islam. Universities are scrambling to add courses and faculty positions. Graduate students with newly minted doctorates in Islamic religion and literature are getting multiple job offers.
But because of the “lightning-rod quality” of Islamic studies in the United States, many academic experts find themselves defensively telling audiences, “I study Islam, but I am not a Muslim,” said Bruce B. Lawrence, a professor of religion at Duke University.
Since the furor over the UNC assignment, Sells in particular spends a lot of time defending his patriotism and trying to make the point that teaching about Islam is not the same thing as proselytizing it.
Fox News Network’s Bill O’Reilly compared the assignment to teaching ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1941 and questioned the purpose of making freshmen study ‘our enemy’s religion.’
The great irony of the UNC controversy, Sells said, is that when he wrote the book several years ago, his goal was to avoid “the whole argument about the violent or nonviolent nature” of Islam.
“The point of this book is to say, let’s put that vital question aside for a moment and ask, ‘What is it in the religion that makes 1.2 billion people see it as meaningful?’ And present that just as you would present what it is in the Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus that is meaningful to Christians,” he said.
The book contains fresh translations and multiple interpretations of 35 suras, or passages, that Muslims consider to have been the earliest revelations to the prophet Muhammad but that come toward the end of the Koran.
“If you buy a Koran and start reading it, you’re jumping into it backwards from the way most Muslims approach it. ... It’s as though you began reading the Bible in the middle of the book of Kings, all these complicated tribal rivalries and historical battles, and that’s the stuff with the violent passages that Glover wants to get into,” Sells said.
Most Muslims read those passages in the context of ancient wars, not as general directives for today, he added. “Islam, like all the other major religions, is a religion of peace or of violence depending on who is interpreting it, and if you look across the Muslim world, you’ll see very different answers,” Sells said.
According to Glover, the Family Policy Network learned about the summer reading assignment in May and immediately began casting about on Christian radio shows for UNC freshmen willing to bring a lawsuit. Ultimately, it chose three. Citing fear of retaliation by the university or fellow students, they have remained anonymous and are listed as John Doe No. 1, John Doe No. 2 and Jane Roe — an evangelical Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew.
‘The point of this book is to say, let’s put that vital question aside for a moment and ask, “What is it in the religion that makes 1.2 billion people see it as meaningful?” ’
— MICHAEL A. SELLS
author of "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations"
Glover said that his organization does not oppose the teaching of Islam and that, in fact, universities should offer such courses — as electives. He argues that as a public-supported university, UNC has crossed a legal line by forcing students to study a religious belief and by assigning a book he maintains is not neutral about a religion.
“Approaching the Qur’an” is “not a bad book, as far as it goes,” Glover said. The real problem, he said, “is not the sin of the author, it’s the sin of the university, which knows this book presents nothing controversial about Islam. ... Anybody who has read this book and this book alone is still going to be ignorant about why people are killing other people in the name of Allah.”
University officials declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit but said they are confident that the assignment, which has no grade attached, does not violate the Constitution. UNC’s lawyers also asked a judge last week to disqualify the plaintiffs because the three students are unnamed and the Family Policy Network has no standing to sue, as it will suffer no harm from the reading.
“Whether this is the optimal book to teach people about the Koran, I’m sure that’s debatable,” said Shelton, the provost. “But it’s a place to start.”
Student body president Jennifer Daum, 21, of Pewaukee, Wis., agrees.
“At the very least, it starts a dialogue,” Daum said. “My feeling is that if you’re not prepared to read ideas that are not your own and that you might disagree with, you do not belong at an institution of higher learning.”
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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