< < <
Date Index
> > >
A washingtonpost.com article from: alvi_saima@yahoo.com
by alvi_saima
08 August 2002 04:55 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
You have been sent this message from alvi_saima@yahoo.com as a courtesy of the 
Washington Post - http://www.washingtonpost.com 
 To view the entire article, go to 
 A Timely Subject -- and a Sore One
 By Alan Cooperman
  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 by 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."
  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 
  "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."
  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.
  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.
  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 
  "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."


< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >