"From the Heart of the Qur'an Belt"

Carl W. Ernst

Religious Studies News, May 2003


Last summer, the oldest public university in America was sued for requiring students to read a book. The lawsuit seeking to block the assignment was dismissed on appeal, for sound constitutional reasons.  After reading the book over the summer, 2260 first-year students met on August 19 for one 2-hour session to discuss Michael Sells' Approaching the Qur’an.  The “required” sessions went off smoothly, without assigning grades or taking attendance, while dozens of news reporters crawled over the campus seeking sound bites. Students wondered what all the fuss was about. What was really going on in this controversy?


When the Summer Reading Program Committee at UNC asked me if there was a good translation of the Qur'an that would be suitable for its program, I immediately thought of Michael Sells' translation of the short suras from the end of the Qur’an.  If this particular book were not available, I cannot think of any other translation of the Qur'an that I would have recommended to assign to our incoming students.


As I thought over the obvious pedagogical reasons for this choice, it occurred to me to wonder whether the selection might prove controversial, but at the time, that seemed a remote possibility. To my surprise, there was significant resistance among some students and faculty on the committee to a translation of the Qur’an.  The questions raised were phrased in terms of the difficulty of the text and its strangeness to most students, but there was a tension beneath these discussions that would soon be reflected in public debate. Eventually, however, the committee chose this book, although with a divided vote.


What were the underlying issues? First, the conservative Virginia-based Family Policy Council initiated a lawsuit charging that a reading and discussion assignment involving a partial translation of the Qur’an amounted to proselytism, and was an attempt to convert students to Islam. This was an attack on the academic and comparative study of religion, going against well-established Supreme Court guidelines on teaching about religion (as opposed to teaching religion in religious communities). With considerable hypocrisy, this group accused UNC of violating the separation of church and state, though they made it clear they would welcome a reading assignment involving the Bible.


Next, this controversy helped bring to the surface a strong current of anti-Muslim prejudice that had lain dormant since President Bush’s post-9/11 pronouncement that “Islam is not the enemy.” Quite clearly, there are many Americans who disagree with President Bush on that point. This anti-Muslim prejudice goes back to the middle ages, but has become especially virulent in the colonial encounters of the past two centuries. It has much in common with anti-Semitism and racism as a powerful form of bigotry, although it is much more acceptable in public today. Subsequent attacks on the Prophet Muhammad by well-known Christian fundamentalist leaders indicate that this entrenched bias will continue to be a major controversial theme in our immediate future. The Qur’an incident also revealed how dominant fundamentalist modes of thinking are today, not only within major religious traditions, but also in the interpretation of other religions; the attacks on Islam not only assumed that Muslim fundamentalists represent “true” Islam, but also applied (negative) fundamentalist interpretive techniques to the text of the Qur’an.


But the attack on the summer reading program was actually launched by conservative commentators on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News TV channel, demonstrating the important role of the news media in creating and sustaining stories about religious controversy. There was a wide range, however, of media reporting on this incident. Some journalists indulged in Muslim-baiting tactics; the host of Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” program compared the Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which he also would have prohibited students from reading. As Sells has pointed out in a valuable summary on his web page (http://www.haverford.edu/relg/sells/UNC_ApproachingTheQur'an.htm), journalists for Time magazine and some major newspapers trivialized the issue, and certain conservative commentators blatantly and irresponsibly distorted the facts of the situation. On the whole, however, I found that most journalists recognized how close is the connection between academic freedom and freedom of the press.  Many of them showed remarkable professionalism and insight, and it is particularly notable that local North Carolina journalists provided some of the most accurate and telling accounts of the entire episode. One of the best stories is an extended piece by the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly television program on PBS (21 August 2002). The UNC Qur’an story received its share of international attention as well, including a feature on the BBC radio news hour. The funniest story was on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” in a hilarious piece by Mo Rocca.


The other major public forum for this controversy was the state of North Carolina, which for many years has had a love-hate relationship with the flagship campus of the state university in Chapel Hill. UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser from the beginning provided solid and unflinching support for the Qur’an selection, despite receiving a flood of mail, including many complaints about the assignment. The university did blink a bit, however, in mid-July, clarifying that students who found the assignment “offensive” could avoid reading the book, but that they should write a 1-page essay explaining why they could not do so. Those critics who wished to spare our freshman the shock of reading a non-Christian text evidently would have been surprised to learn that North Carolina requires the study of non-European religions in the junior high school social studies curriculum.


The lawsuit against UNC galvanized the faculty by its threat of outside control of University. But when members of the UNC Board of Governors on Aug. 9 proposed a resolution affirming the principles of academic freedom, the measure failed to pass, ostensibly for technical reasons. A few days later, the UNC Faculty Council resoundingly passed a motion in favor of academic freedom. Simultaneously, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed a budget including an amendment to deny funding to any UNC summer reading program assignment devoted to one particular religion, unless it includes “all known religions.” Legislators saw the Qur’an assignment as equivalent to support for Muslim terrorists. "I see this as insensitive, arrogant and poor timing to allow students to read about our attackers," said Rep. Gene Arnold, a Republican from Nash County. The amendment ultimately disappeared in budget negotiations with the Senate. Two federal courts dismissed the lawsuit against UNC, and the discussion sessions took place without a hitch on August 19.  Belatedly, several days later the UNC Board of Governors approved unanimously a resolution in favor of academic freedom.


Faculty members, administrators, students, and staff at UNC supported the summer reading program enthusiastically. The 178 volunteer discussion leaders included the chancellor and provost, the chair of the Board of Trustees, Jewish and Christian chaplains of student religious organizations, librarians, graduate students, and faculty from many different departments and schools. In representing the university to the press, members of the Summer Reading Program Committee took a leading role, especially committee chair Robert Kirkpatrick, a professor of English literature.  I myself gave dozens of interviews. Chancellor Moeser appeared in countless venues, including NPR’s “Morning Edition,” ABC’s “Nightline”, plus “Good Morning America.”  The university news staff worked heroically to manage the demand for interviews. A media consultant coached me and Provost Robert Shelton in the techniques of producing sound bites for television reporters. The experience was both exhilarating and exhausting.


Dozens of letters and emails from around the country and from overseas addressed this controversy, with about four out of five that I received being strongly in favor of UNC and the assignment. Critics included conservative Christians as well as secularized Muslims, who were equally outraged that the Qur’an should be read instead of refuted.  Supporters of the assignment, from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds, praised UNC for advocating knowledge over ignorance during a time of panic.


My favorite comment came from Malaysian human rights activist Chandra Muzaffar: “There was a report in yesterday's newspapers here in Kuala Lumpur about the controversy, with a picture of you. UNC’s intellectual integrity and moral courage are a beacon of hope for the academic community, worldwide. Irrational fear, prejudice and suspicion will remain the enemies of justice, truth and honesty for a long while to come. Here in Malaysia we have to combat another type of irrationality - the irrationality of those who subscribe to a dogmatic approach to Islam. Their thinking is as pernicious as that of individuals who fear any contact with the religion.”


This summer reading program was not a revolution. The percentage of participation by students – about 65% -- was about the same as last year’s, and the discussion sessions varied considerably in quality. But a couple of things were achieved in this process. First, the university community made a strong affirmation of academic freedom in the face of attempts by outside religious and political forces to control what books are read. Second, the university declared by this example that it is time to make understanding Islam part of a liberal arts education. Both these conclusions should be kept in mind as we face the challenges ahead of us.