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2002-AUG:

UNIVERSITY DISPUTE re: ISLAMIC BOOK

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Sponsored link.

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Quotations:

bullet"A nation still struggling to make sense out of the Sept. 11 attacks needs all of the enlightenment it can find, not more hatred in the name of religion. ... branding Muslims as 'the enemy' only plays into the hands of radical Muslims who are trying to distort the U.S. war against terrorism as merely the West's latest crusade against Islam." USA Today editorial. 1
bullet"By forcing students to read a single text about Islam that leaves out any mention of other passages of the Koran in which Muslim terrorists find justification for killing non-Muslims, the university establishes a particular mind-set for its students about the nature of Islam. This constitutes religious indoctrination [which is] forbidden by the Supreme Court." Joe Goover, president of Family Policy Network. 2

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Overview:

In 2002, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) selected a book on Islam to be read by first year and transfer students as part of their orientation. Later, the students would engage in discussions about the book with UNC faculty and fellow students. Previous reading lists have listed books that tackled such topics as medical ethics, "the centrality of the Civil War for Southern culture and identity," and the impact of poverty on children's lives.

A number of Fundamentalist Christian organizations, two taxpayers and three students have objected, citing religious freedom issues. A committee of the state legislature voted to terminate funding for the course. Some politicians condemned the book choice. A court case is underway.

The Carolina Summer Reading Program amended is requirements after the dispute arose. They state that: "Although the summer reading is required, if any students or their families are opposed to reading parts of the Qur'an because to do so is offensive to their own faith, they may choose not to read the book. These students should instead complete their one-page response on why they chose not to read the book." 3

On 2002-AUG-15, U.S. District Court judge Carlton Tilley, Jr., refused to grant a temporary restraining order. 10

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Sponsored link:

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About the book:

Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford, is Emily Judson Baugh and John Marshall Gest Professor of Comparative Religion at Haverford College in Haverford, PA. He is also chairperson of the Haverford Department of Religion. Sells is the author/translator of the book under dispute: "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Years." 4 He has also written:

bullet"Desert Tracings: Six Classical Arabian Odes" Wesleyan University Press, (1989).
bullet"Mystical Languages of Unsaying" University of Chicago Press, (1994);
bullet"The Bridge Betrayed: Genocide in Bosnia" University of California Press, (1997),
bulletHe is co-editor and contributor to the "Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, Andalusia‚ Cambridge University Press, (2000).

In the disputed book, he translates 35 of the early suras (chapters) of the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an. He follows each with a commentary and explanation. The book also has an annotated glossary which defines key Islamic concepts. Included with the book is a CD disk with recordings of renowned readers of the Qur'an, reciting it in Arabic.

The web site of UNC's reading program states that "Westerners for centuries have been alternately puzzled, attracted, concerned, and curious about the great religious traditions of Islam. These feelings have been especially intense since the tragic events of September 11. Approaching the Qur'án is not a political document in any sense, and its evocation of moral 'reckoning' raises questions that will be timely for college students and reflective adults under any circumstances. The Carolina Summer Reading program is especially happy to offer a book of enduring interest this year that also offers the Carolina community an appropriate introduction to the literature and culture of a profound moral and spiritual tradition that many of us now wish to learn more about." 3

Some authors, writing on the Amazon.com web site, have high regard for the book:

bullet"Michael Sells is to be congratulated for making a major contribution to religious literature with 'Approaching The Qur'an,' the best version of Muslim scriptures available in English. This is an important and illuminating work, one that will be welcomed by scholars, students, believers, and all who seek to better understand Islam and its sacred scripture."  Carl Ernst is professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina and author of The Shambhala Guide to Sufism.
bullet"Michael Sells has performed an invaluable service in making the beauty, spiritual energy, and compelling power of the Qur'an accessible to a Western audience for the first time." Karen Armstrong, author of the bestselling book: "A History Of God." 4

Some amateur reviewers also rate the book highly; they give it a near perfect rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars:

bullet"This book will give you a much better understanding of the Qur'an than a translation will because it not only explains the meaning of the Qur'anic text, its unique approach solves the problems that those of us who don't speak Arabic have in understanding its nature and its meaning....In English, [the author]... says, God in the Qur'an sounds angry, whereas in Arabic, God in the Qur'an sounds sad and compassionate. That's a big difference. Sells also says that the grammar in Arabic allows the tone of the Qur'an to achieve 'ultimate majesty' at the same time as 'personal intimacy.' Because of the linguistic difference, that is very difficult to carry over into English." A reader from San Francisco, CA.
bullet"Approaching the Qur'an thrusts the reader into the multifaceted, supple world of Islam by coupling delicate, sensitive, lyrical translations of Islam's sacred text with an extensive commentary on each Sura translated. These commentaries discuss the religious and historical context surrounding each of these Suras' revelations, resulting in the reader gaining insight not just into the Qur'an's message, but into the other major religious themes of Islam as well." An unidentified reader. 4

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The dispute:

On 2002-AUG-1, the Associated Press (UP) reported that three anonymous students and two taxpayers had filed a lawsuit on 2002-JUL-22 against the UNC because it required new students to read a book on Islam. One of the taxpayers was from the Fundamentalist Christian Family Policy Network, which is based in Virginia. According to the UP, the suit was filed in July by a Fundamentalist Christian organization, the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy. (United Press International (UPI) reported that the suit was filed by the Family Policy Network, which describes itself as a "socially conservative Christian educational organization.") The UPI states that: "In their complaint, the plaintiffs charge that UNC indoctrinates students with deceptive claims about the peaceful nature of Islam, violating the separation of church and state...In fact, the book makes no general claims about Islam. 5

Competing claims drew analogies between the reading program (and reaction to the book) and anti-semitism:

bulletThe American Family Association Centre for Law & Policy rejected the Reading Program's opt-out policy for students who didn't want to read the book. In an apparent reference to early anti-semitic laws by the Christian church, and later copy-cat laws by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, they said: "Pitting students who object to the forced reading of the Koran against those who do not is the modern equivalent of requiring the objecting students to wear yellow stars of David." 2
bulletCarl W Ernst, a UNC professor of religion, accused the Christian groups of bias. He said: "It is easy to take phrases out of context from any sacred book. This is part of a long history of anti-Islamic bias that is akin to anti-semitism or even racism." 6

On AUG-1, the UNC asked the judge to dismiss the suit. They argued that the two taxpayers, James Yacovelli and Terry Moffitt should be removed from the suit because they cannot prove any injury as a result of the required reading. Also, the cannot prove that they will benefit if the requirement is lifted. The university also asked that the students not remain anonymous, because they cannot prove that they have any reason to suspect that they will be harmed if their identities become known. 7

On AUG-7, the British Broadcasting Corporation quoted the university's Chancellor James Moeser as stating that: "We are obviously not promoting one religion. What more timely subject could there be?" 6

On AUG-9, UPI reported that Representative Sam Ellis (NC-R) "told a local radio station he did not want the students in the university system to study 'this evil. ...If they wish to pursue it on their own, or if they wish to pursue it as an elective, that's fine. But I don't think it is something our university system should be encouraging.' " 5

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has asked for an apology from Ellis. Board Chairman Omar Ahmad commented: "The level of anti-Muslim rhetoric from commentators, religious leaders, and now elected officials, is getting out of hand and is poisoning the minds of many ordinary Americans. Only a strong statement from President Bush will put these people on notice that anti-Muslim bigotry will not be accepted in our society." A few days earlier, CAIR made a similar call after Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, said terrorism is part of "mainstream" Islam and claimed the Koran, "preaches violence." 2

Also, on AUG-9, the Family Research Council reported that a state legislative committee voted 64 to 10 to ban the use of public funds for the UNC class unless the university taught about all known religions. This would be difficult for the university to implement, since there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many tens of thousands of smaller ones. 8

Rep. Wayne Sexton of Rockingham said, "If you stop and think about what [September 11] meant to this country's homeland security, guards everywhere, just think what it costs to protect ourselves from this faction, and here we are promoting it.9

Bill O'Reilly, a popular conservative Fox News television commentator drew an analogy between the study of the Qur'an and Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in the years prior to World War II. He said that teaching the Koran to US students was wrong as it was the book of "our enemy's religion." UPI columnist Claude Salhani disagreed. He wrote: "Indeed, had more people familiarized themselves with Hitler's writing, they might well have learned of his true evil intentions. And wasn't it Mao Zedong who said that the first step in defeating your enemy is to know him? 'Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat.' Assuming that Islam is the enemy as some people would like us to believe -- although it has been established that it isn't -- then, would it not in fact make far greater sense to study it, become familiarized with it, and learn what exactly it is that motivates people to attack this country, if indeed it is the Koran that provides these murderous incentives?...Are we therefore to enlarge the literary censorship list? Or better yet, should we start burning books and instead, encourage people to watch mindless programs on television, as in Ray Bradbury's futuristic novel, 'Fahrenheit 451?' " 2

On AUG-16, an editorial "Summer Reading" in the San Francisco Chronicle referred to the Fundamentalist Christian organizations who launched the lawsuit, and to the state legislature who withheld funding: "In failing to support academic freedom, as well as students' intellectual need to better understand Islam, the state government and university have provided a poor example to their students. They should know better." 10

On 2002-AUG-15, U.S. District Court judge Carlton Tilley, Jr., refused to grant a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the voluntary course from proceeding. 11

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Conclusions:

The debate seems to involve a lot of "hot" religious topics:

bulletDoes the Separation of Church and State implied by First Amendment allow a university to suggest that students to read the holy book of a single religion? Various U.S. Supreme Court decisions (e.g. Lee vs. Weisman), imply that this is unconstitutional for a publicly funded school. Comparative religion classes can be constitutional. However, they study examine multiple religions.
bulletDoes the study of the 35 early suras give an accurate picture of Islam?
bulletDoes the Qur'an promote co-existence and/or violence against other religions.
bulletWhether requiring university students to learn about Islam is a form of religious indoctrination.
bulletWhether university graduates will be able to deal more effectively with Islam if they are familiar with, or ignorant of, the religion and its holy book, the Qur'an. This is a particularly important question, because -- if current trends continue -- Islam will surpass Christianity to become the dominant world religion within the next 25 years. This would be within the professional careers of year 2006 graduates.

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References:

  1. "Quest for knowledge ignites baseless fight," USA Today editorial, 2002-AUG-8, at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/
  2. Joe Glover, "Book fails to tell whole truth," USA Today editorial, 2002-AUG-8, at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/
  3. "Carolina Summer Reading Program," University of North Carolina, at: http://www.unc.edu/srp/
  4. Michael Sells, "Approaching the Qur'an: The early revelations," White Cloud Press, (1999).  Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. Claude Salhani, "Koranic misreadings," Culture vulture column, United Press International, 2002-AUG-9.
  6. "US university sued over Koran class," British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002-AUG-7, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/
  7. "University asks judge to dismiss five from suit over Islamic book," Associated Press, 2002-AUG-2.
  8. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  9. Ken Connor, "Will UNC reverse 'course' on Islam?," Washington Update, Family Research Council, 2002-AUG-9.
  10. "Summer Reading," San Francisco Chronicle, 2002-AUG-16, at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?
  11. "Judge OKs UNC students to read Quran," Associated Press, 2002-AUG-16, at: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/national/

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Copyright © 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-AUG-12
Latest update: 2002-AUG-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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