Reading the Koran in Chapel Hill
By Andrew Chase Baker
Since 1999, the University of North Carolina has assigned its incoming
first-year students a common summer reading assignment intended to introduce
them to the rigors of study at the college level. In 2001, for example, the
text was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, an award-winning
study involving controversial issues of medical ethics and cultural
difference experienced by a young Laotian immigrant.
This year, the university selected Approaching the Qur’an: The Early
Revelation by the comparative religion scholar Michael Sells. The book
included 35 passages from the Muslim sacred text and a compact disc of the
text read aloud in Arabic. Students were assigned to write a short paper and
to attend a seminar discussion when they arrived on campus. Several key
questions were posed for discussion. One asked, "Are there problems or
benefits from discussing a religious text in a group when some group members
share that religious tradition and others do not? What if most participants
do not share the religious tradition of the text?"
In the age of the war on Al Qaeda, what was intended as a hypothetical
question became a prophetic one. Conservative Christian activists promptly
filed a law suit claiming that, since UNC is a state funded school, an
assignment that obliged all students to read the Koran violated the
constitutional restriction against the separation of church and state.
The story broke on July 8, when Fox News Network’s "Hannity
& Colmes" aired an interview with James Yacovelli of
the Family Policy Network (FPN). The Christian advocacy group was seeking
both plaintiffs from the student body and a summertime helping of media
attention. Yacovelli began the interview by asserting that the assignment
"is really a veiled coercion to get students to accept Islam from a
Sells’ book, Yacovelli complained, "didn’t portray Islamic
culture in a true light." The correct way to view Islamic culture, he
said, "is very clear from September 11. The culture is to kill the
infidels and drive planes into us, and blow us up." Colmes, the house
liberal on the show, immediately attacked Yacovelli’s characterization of
Islam as a gross generalization that did not accurately represent the views
of most Muslims. Nevertheless, a media tempest had been been triggered.
By July 24, when CNN covered the story on "Talkback Live," UNC
was under assault from many directions—including the state legislature—and
had backpedaled on the reading requirements. It had decided that students
with conscientious objections to analyzing Koranic texts could opt out of
the reading assignment by writing a one-page paper stating their objections.
UNC was on the run, but Joe Glover, the national president of the Family
Policy Network, wasn’t appeased. On CNN he repeated his objections to the
pro-Islamic bias in the text, but moved on to articulate the perennial
American anxiety about combining religion and public education.
"If this was a course on New Testament Christianity, with a required
text written by Jerry Falwell, we would object just as vehemently simply
because we don’t expect a state University in North Carolina to get that
right either," Glover complained. "We don’t think it is a good
idea for state universities to use taxpayers’ dollars to indoctrinate
students on a religious text regardless of what it is."
A number of jabs followed, including an accusation that the American
Civil Liberties Union was hypocritical and cowardly for failing to support
the FPN. But the key legal question was now on the table: Was the assignment
of Sells’ book an attempt by UNC to indoctrinate students into a
particular faith belief, or was it a nonpartisan, academic exercise? Was
reading the same as believing?
The practical consequences of the teapot tempest became clear on August
8, when the North Carolina state legislature voted to cut off all funds
pertaining to the reading assignment. Fox Network News commentator Bill O’Reilly
seized upon the day’s ruling to vindicate his initial position against the
assignment, already voiced several times previously on "The O’Reilly
O’Reilly summarized the controversy this way: "The school is
requiring all incoming freshmen to read a book praising the Koran, the
Islamic Bible." He then chose to reiterate an analogy he first made in
a July 10 interview with Dr. Robert Kirkpatrick, the professor at UNC who
chaired the book selection committee. "Americans don’t need to read
the Koran to understand that fanatical Islamic killers are a threat. I went
on to tell the professor that we didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to
understand that Hitler was a threat."
Naturally, O’Reilly’s approach generated reactions. In a Slate piece
on August 9, "Save the Bigots: How to Decry Persecution by
Practicing It," William Saletan wrote, "Conservatives often
complain that many leftists practice censorship in the name of defeating it.
That’s true. But the hypocrisy goes both ways. Religious bigotry isn’t
gone. It just goes by the name of religious freedom."
David Van Beima attacked O’Reilly directly on August 19 in Time,
"What could be more predictable than the brouhaha that followed: the
rambling overture on Christian websites; the brassy solo by Fox News’ Bill
O’Reilly; and the inevitable legal coda."
On August 8, Sells defended his book in a Washington Post column.
He placed the debate, as did Saletan, in terms of culture wars.
"Behind the lawsuit is an old missionary claim that Islam is a religion
of violence in contrast to Christianity, a religion of peace. In effect the
plaintiffs are suing the Koran on behalf of the Bible."
A Mary Marklein piece in USA Today lent credence to this theory.
"Glover says he has no quarrel with the book. ‘It’s the selection
of the book that’s the problem.’"
Is that a distinction without a difference? Not, according to National
Review’s James Bowman, as far as conservatives are concerned. "It
would be idle to deny that at least part of the objection to being forced to
learn about Islam does seem based on the superiority of Christianity. To
that conservatives would reply: What’s your point? Christianity is
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put an end to the
skirmish on August 19, predictably rejecting the Family Policy Network’s
case. UNC then scraped together alternative funding and went ahead with the
seminars. As has been long established, there’s no constitutional problem
with studying religions or religious texts in public schools and colleges,
as long as they are analyzed as cultural and historical artifacts, and not
presented as objects of devotion.
One striking feature of the North Carolina episode is that the mainstream
journalists never showed much interest in Sells’ book itself or considered
whether the Family Policy Network’s campaign threatened academic freedom.
But, in truth, Approaching the Qur’an itself was never the real
issue. It is a translation of sacred texts, with analysis from a literary
and historical perspective. Interestingly, college papers, unlike
their grown-up counterparts, grasped this immediately. "To prevent
students from reading seminal works of civilization solely because they
happen to be religious texts is ridiculous if the intent of such reading is
to emphasize the aesthetic beauty of the work, or to encourage students to
come to an objective understanding of the religion and its accompanying
culture," Duke University’s student paper, The Chronicle,
editorialized on August 22.
Despite the fact that the assignment was optional, the UNC freshmen
read, wrote, and attended seminars in record numbers. When Charles Gibson of
ABC’s "Good Morning America" asked UNC Chancellor James Moeser
whether the cause was worth the controversy, Moeser replied, "The
controversy in fact validated the purposes of the assignment. And we
succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."