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Sura Reading

The University of North Carolina makes the Koran required reading for incoming freshmen.

12:00 AM, Jul 25, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
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IT'S BEEN SAID that it is important to know one's enemies. By requiring freshmen to read parts of the Koran this year, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, may be trying to do just that. But though this year's selection for the summer reading program may be well intended, some students and others with interests in UNC are trying to stop the program from going forward.

This summer, incoming freshman at UNC must read "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," edited and translated by Haverford College religion professor Michael Sells. The book includes selected suras from the Koran and is accompanied by a CD with recitations from the book. Students must write a one-page "response" to "Approaching the Qur'an," guided by a set of study questions. Study questions include, "Now that you have read parts of the Koran, do you think more Americans should read all or parts of the book?" and "How does the sound [of a recitation from the CD] seem to you to create meanings and effects that are not present when you just read the text alone?" Mandatory discussion sessions are scheduled during orientation in mid-August. Students who find the work offensive for religious reasons may submit a one-page paper on why they chose not to read the book.

Representing three freshmen, one Jewish and two Christian, as well as a UNC alum and a North Carolina citizen, the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy has sued the school, seeking an injunction to halt this required reading. The suit claims the program advances Islam and misrepresents the Koran, attempting to "impose a uniform favorable opinion of the religion of Islam" among students. The summer reading, the suit concludes, violates the establishment and free exercise clauses contained in the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

"We are not in favor of the school's mandating the reading of any religious document," says Stephen M. Crampton, chief counsel for the Center for Law and Policy. This includes, he adds, the Bible. The Mississippi-based American Family Association describes itself as an organization that "exists to motivate and equip citizens to change the culture to reflect Biblical truth."

"[The school has] required the students to read a strongly pro-Islam interpretation of the Koran, which includes only about one-third of the suras," Crampton continues.

UNC disagrees. In earlier correspondence with an individual concerned about the program, Chancellor James Moeser wrote that the school was not "spoon-feeding [students] a set of beliefs. We're asking them to read and tell each other what they think. . . . We offer the summer reading this year in . . . [the] spirit of seeking understanding--not in advocacy of Islam over Christianity or Judaism or any other religion." Not reading the book, Moeser has written would be a "missed opportunity" for students.

The lawsuit contends that the book omits suras that command the execution of non-believers, such as sura 9:5, which includes the words, "Fight and slay the pagan wherever you find them." A press release from the Center for Law and Policy earlier this week sarcastically referred to Sells as an "Islamicist" and criticized UNC for picking a book on Islam that excludes passages like sura 4:89, which states that "those who reject Islam must be killed."

Focusing instead on what is in the book, rather than what is left out, the program's website 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."

The site does not portray "Approaching the Qur'an" as all-inclusive, qualifying that the suras to be studied largely examine the experience of the divine in the natural world and the principle of moral accountability. "These suras," the program overview explains, "are poetic and intensely evocative, beautiful meditations, comparable in many ways to the Psalms of David and other classics of world literature."

The university won't comment on pending litigation, but UNC communications director Michael McFarland says the school plans to go forward with the summer reading program. McFarland emphasizes Chancellor Moeser's continued reminders that students can opt out of the reading.

Beth Henary is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.