A Timely Subject — and a Sore One
By Alan Cooperman
Wednesday, August 7, 2002; Page A01
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.
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