The Associated Press, Sep 6, 2002 : 12:52 am ET
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The religion professor who wrote a book that touched off a national debate told an audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that the controversy was healthy.
“I don’t believe that all controversies are worthwhile and I certainly don’t believe that offending anybody is worthwhile,” Michael Sells, author of “Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations,” told the audience of about 700. “But sometimes one makes the right decisions for the right reason — a principled decision. That decision and the after-effects can provide a public service and bring forth a discussion into the general public that has been needed.”
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Sells spent 15 years writing “Approaching the Qur’an,” which was assigned during the summer to UNC freshmen and transfer students. The assignment resulted in a media frenzy, legislative action and a federal lawsuit about the separation of church and state. A judge ultimately ruled in favor of UNC and allowed the school to proceed with the assignment.
The book was not meant to explain the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 or interpret the entire Quran, but to introduce readers to a complex holy text, Sells said.
“I felt it was really important for people to have a taste of this,” explained Sells, who teaches at Haverford College near Philadelphia.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, and columnist William Buckley are among those who criticized “Approaching the Qur’an” for offering a one-sided, peaceful view of Islam.
“Many of the groups who attack Islam most vehemently … they’re saying the same things now that they said about Jews 20 years ago,” Sells said. “All that rhetoric that used to be used against Jews has shifted and is now being used against Islam.”
Sells said he focused on the short, lyrical passages in the Quran that are most often memorized, recited and used in everyday Islamic life.
The message is important to consider, and UNC officials asked a question that needed to be weighed since the attacks of Sept. 11.
“In a diverse society where we have different universities, I think it was vital for someone to say, in a way that’s effective, is there more to Islam than jihad?” he asked.
Sophomore Nermeen Arastu, who was one of several Muslim students handing out fliers outside of the auditorium, said she welcomed the controversy, even if some people still don’t understand the specifics of her faith.
“I think more good came out of it than bad,” Arastu said. “It sparked an interest. It’s better to know something than nothing at all.”