AP, Aug. 15, 2002
By WILLIAM L. HOLMES
RALEIGH, N.C. – When Brendan Byrne heads to college next week, he’ll be carrying a copy of Michael Sells’ “Approaching the Qu’ran: The Early Revelations” – required summer reading for new students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The students are supposed to talk about it in discussion groups Monday. But state legislators and a conservative policy group are making last-minute efforts to stop that from happening.
It’s all part of a heated dispute that has triggered discussions on religious freedom, patriotism, church and state separation, academic freedom and bigotry in this conservative state.
Detractors say the 220-page book, which discusses 35 verses from Islam’s holy text, could convert Americans to the religion of terrorists blamed for the deaths of about 3,000 people on Sept. 11.
The university says the assignment is not a tool for conversion, but rather a way to help students struggling to understand a religion shared by 1.2 billion people.
The state House approved a budget plan Tuesday that would cut public money for the assignment unless it gives equal time to all religions – a largely symbolic stance, since the school’s summer reading program costs relatively little and the Legislature is weeks away from passing a final budget.
A more definitive strike could come today, when a federal judge hearing a lawsuit against the reading requirement could decide to block Monday’s discussions.
Sells’ book contains commentary on the 35 Quran passages and has a companion CD with audio recitations of several verses. School officials have asked more than 4,000 freshmen and transfer students to write a one-page paper about the material.
Carl Ernst, a professor of Islam at UNC, recommended the assignment in the hope that it would teach new students about a religion that puzzles many Americans.
“I don’t think I would have recommended any other (book) for this kind of educational purpose,” Ernst said. “(Sells is) not approaching it as a preacher . . . but he’s approaching it as a text we need to understand.”
It’s not the first time conservatives from North Carolina have voiced objections to Islam. The Rev. Franklin Graham of Boone, N.C., who delivered the invocation at President Bush’s inauguration, has publicly called Islam an evil religion.
Sells said the book focuses on innocuous parts of the Quran, not those that call for the death of non-Muslims or the rejection of friendships with Christians and Jews.
Sells said he excluded those passages because they were too complex for an introduction to the Quran and would confuse those unfamiliar with Islam and the history of the Middle East.
Sells says many Americans cling to the idea that most Muslims are eager to exterminate Americans – particularly Christians.
He compares it to the backlash of the Pearl Harbor attack that resulted in many Americans of Japanese ancestry being sent to internment camps during World War II.
“(Those beliefs) can be really dangerous if we don’t find out who the enemy is,” he said. “If we think the enemy is really Islam, we’re going to be fighting on a thousand fronts.”
James Moeser, chancellor of UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, said the intensity of discussion surrounding the issue demonstrates a need for information.
“We need to explore our own religious biases in this country, our own fear of examination, our own intolerance,” Moeser said. “The faculty has succeeded in choosing a book that is provocative in the best sense of the word, provocative of inquiry, even controversy. Universities thrive on controversy.”