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UNC Draws Fire, Lawsuit For Assigning Book On Islam

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."

I won't bother addressing O'Reilly's quote. Anyone who can't see the many ways in which it's wrong is beyond hope of being reached by reason.

It seems clear to me that there's nothing unconstitutional about having students read a book on Islam. The difference between "teaching a religion" and "teaching about a religion" seems pretty basic. A university would be remiss in its mission of producing graduates with well-rounded understanding of the world if it strictly avoided mention of a subject that has had such a significant impact on the lives of people past and present.

But I don't know that Approaching the Qur'an was necessarily the best choice. The university said that the motivation for using a book on Islam was, of course, the increased interest in the topic following September 11. This is an interest generated by the high profile of violence in the name of Islam. Yet the book's author is quoted as saying he specifically avoided addressing that issue. This is not to say that the book itself is bad -- I hardly expect every book on Christianity to cover the Inquisition. But it seems strange that in response to growing interest in Islam because of its political manifestation, the university would pick a book that does not address that.

I understand the desire to see the other aspects of Islam. It's certainly not just about terrorism, and it would do the nation well if people understood the non-political side of it. But university administrators are fooling themselves if they think that political Islam won't be the focus of discussion about the book. That's the topic that will be on students' minds, especially when Bush ratchets up the saber-rattling in time for the elections this fall. So it seems that students would be better served by a more historical or poli-sci type of analysis, giving them a body of facts about violence in the name of religion that would enlighten their discussions (I'm told that Terror in the Mind of God, which addresses Christian fundamentalist attacks on abortion clinics and ultra-Zionist violence as well, is good).

The people filing the lawsuit made a similar point -- 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."

But should there be a lawsuit over that? Hardly. It's interesting that the conservative Christian commentators who drummed up the lawsuit tend to be the first to gripe about "judicial activism" (not to mention posting the 10 commandments in schools...).


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