ABC News, Aug. 25, 2002
— The new freshman class arrived on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus last weekend — bright, shiny 18-year-olds required to unpack their bags and open their minds.
On the first day of college, amid familiar activities, students got some firsthand lessons in the power of religion and ideas. This university assigns a specific summer book to incoming students. The required reading this year was Approaching The Qur’án, The Early Revelations, with excerpts from and commentary on Islam’s holy book.
Christian groups immediately charged the book was biased.
“It doesn’t provide any insights whatsoever into what could have caused people to act in the name of Allah on Sept. 11,” said Terry Moffitt, chairman of the Family Policy Network.
On Monday, this scheduled discussion of the book went ahead just hours after a federal lawsuit by the Family Policy Network failed for the second time.
That pleased Johnny Gilbert, a freshman. It was the first time he’d read anything about Islam, and he wanted to talk about it.
The Family Policy Network sued to stop the discussion, claiming the book presents only a positive view of Islam.
But federal Judge N. Carlton Tilley Jr. ruled that no person reading this book “would believe … the university is suggesting … a particular interpretation of Islam.” A federal appeals court agreed.
Even ahead of the decision, the university had softened the assignment from required to optional. It was enough of a concession for the president of the Family Policy Network, Joe Glover.
“This is one of those rare cases where a loss is a great win,” Glover said. “Everything has changed. Nothing is now required.”
The conflict was an education for the university’s chancellor, James Moeser.
“I knew there would be controversy, but I never imagined international attention to this,” Moeser said. “I mean, to a two-hour discussion group over an assigned book. I think it says a lot about our country, not all of it good.”
Michael E. Sells, the Haverford College comparative religion professor who wrote Approaching The Qur’án has been swamped with reaction. “The peace-loving Muslims you defend are involved in virtually every conflict on the face of the earth,” said one typical message, he said.
Sells wrote Approaching The Qur’án before Sept. 11. His book is now in demand as interest in Islam grows. But so does the sensitivity to the topic, he says.
“There’s a large undercurrent out there that did not believe President Bush when he said Islam is not our enemy,” Sells said. “We don’t need to condemn those people, or dismiss them. We should talk with them and really talk this thing through, because we’re going to be involved in conflicts in areas with largely Muslim populations for the foreseeable future.”
Popular television talk show host Bill O’Reilly of Fox News made the university’s assignment a national cause. Why, he asked, should students study what he called “the enemy’s religion”?
“I wouldn’t read the book, and I’ll tell you why,” O’Reilly said on his show. “I wouldn’t have read Mein Kampf [by Adolf Hitler] either. If I were going to UNC in 1941, and [a] professor said read Mein Kampf, I would have said, ‘Hey professor, with all due respect, shove it. I ain’t reading it.’ “
Some North Carolina state legislators threatened to cut university funds. Rep. Larry Justus, a Republican in the North Carolina General Assembly, reviewed the book and judged it insensitive.
“This is about singling out a religion to the exclusion of all the others,” Justus said. “And it happens to be that they picked one that our terroristic people right now are using to justify what they’re doing.”
In July, when James Yacovelli of the Family Policy Network announced the group would challenge the assignment in court, he said: “When you think about it, this book is really a veiled coercion to get students to accept Islam from a distorted viewpoint.”
But what about President Bush? On Oct. 16, he said, “We don’t fight a religion. No. We fight evil. We respect Muslim culture. We know Islam is a religion that teaches love and peace and compassion.”
According to the Family Policy Network’s Moffitt, “That was a diplomatic, politically correct answer that totally missed on all accounts.”
Moffitt points to Koranic verses that have been used to justify violence, such as, “Slay the infidels wherever ye find them.”
But Sells objects to such interpretations.
“If you talk about a people’s religion, you really have to understand what is meaningful about it for them as human beings in a way that goes beyond simply arguing about one verse or one passage,” Sells said.
Monday’s discussion group was well attended by students, and watched by reporters from around the world. Some claimed it a victory for free speech, while others volunteered to lead discussion groups.
Johnny Gilbert still wonders what the fuss was all about.
“I found nothing offensive,” Gilbert said. “I mean, I’m a Baptist myself, and I found nothing offensive in there. I mean, it was something different. It was new, and I think change is what a lot of people are afraid of.”