University's Quran Reading Stirs Controversy

What could be a better way to start a college career than by reading from a Good Book?

Plenty, if the book in question is the Quran and your country has been attacked by Muslim terrorists, according to one pro-family group.

Virginia-based Family Policy Network is taking aim at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for requiring all incoming freshmen this fall to read a book about the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

"Today I am ashamed to admit that I am a graduate of UNC," FPN chairman and 1981 Chapel Hill graduate Terry Moffitt said in a statement earlier this year. "The entire university system in North Carolina should be ashamed of itself for forcing a religion on students that many will find not only offensive, but totally opposed to their own religious views."

The book flap started when the university announced the 3,500 freshmen in the Class of 2006 will be reading Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. The book translates and discusses the earliest 35 suras, the first words Muslims believe God revealed to the prophet Mohammed. The students will read the book during orientation week in mid-August and discuss it for "a couple of hours" in groups of 20 to 25 led by faculty members, according to UNC Chancellor James Moeser.

"This was a book chosen in the wake of Sept. 11," Moeser said. "A fifth of the world’s population subscribes to the Islamic religion and yet it’s not a well-understood religion. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation on the teachings of one of the world’s great religions."

The school selects a different book for the freshmen every year to introduce them to college-level intellectual discourse. Last year, incoming freshmen were required to read Confederates in the Attic, about the neo-Confederate movement.

But Moffitt argued this year's selection amounts to state support for one religion over another.

"I think the University of North Carolina would allow any religion to be studied except for Christianity," Moffitt said in a telephone interview. "Why not make Islamic students read from the Bible?"

Moffitt wants students to have an option to study other religions, and says the school should drop its "pro-Islam stance." Moffitt said the group has also sent a letter asking the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina to help overturn the requirement.

Moffitt, who has not read Approaching the Qur’an, said he fears the students will get an incomplete picture of Islam, a politically correct view formed from only part of the entire holy book.

"It’s not going to show the good and the bad, it’s going to paint Islam just as a peaceful, loving religion," he said.

That's not the case, according to the book’s author, Michael Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford College.

"The book is not called Islam. I think that (Moffitt is) misinterpreting what the book is," Sells said. "The purpose of a book is to give a sense of why a billion people belong to the tradition. It makes no judgment about Islam or the Quran as a whole. … My premise is there’s more to Islam than controversy and wars."

Moeser said reading passages of the Quran doesn’t mean students will be taught the Islamic view of life is the correct one.

"We’ll read this just as we read the Communist Manifesto to study Marx or The Little Red Book to study the Cultural Revolution," he said. "This is an attempt to understand a religion, not to promulgate its beliefs."

Seth Jaffe, staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said there is no prohibition against a state university requiring a class about religion, as long as it doesn't promote one over the other. "We are keeping an eye on it, but so far it does not seem to be problematic," he said.

Sells said he wasn’t surprised by the controversy. "I can’t think of any book in creation that, if you required 3,000 first-year students to read, someone wouldn’t object to," he said.