Koran controversy settled at University of North Carolina

PBy Julia Zuckerman
Brown Daily Herald
Brown University

pROVIDENCE, R.I. (U-WIRE) – After a summer-long controversy that thrust the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill into a nationwide debate over religious and academic freedoms, first-year students sat down in August to discuss an annotated translation of excerpts from the Koran.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s decision to assign “Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations” as summer reading for incoming students drew scathing opposition from conservative critics and heavy media attention over the summer.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council issued a statement in support of academic freedom, but the UNC Board of Governors chose not to adopt a similar resolution.

The state Legislature even got involved, threatening to cut funding for the school’s summer reading program unless UNC chose material that represented all religions, the Chapel Hill Herald reported.

The Family Policy Network, a conservative Christian policy group, filed a lawsuit against the school on behalf of three incoming students. In an op-ed published in USA Today in August, FPN President Joe Glover wrote that the school’s assigning the book “constitutes religious indoctrination” because it contains passages from a religion’s “holy text” and presents Islam in a positive light.

A federal appellate court threw out the lawsuit just hours before students were scheduled to discuss the book, which was written by Haverford College Professor of Religion Michael Sells. The discussions went ahead as scheduled.

Brown University Chaplain Janet Cooper-Nelson said she saw UNC-Chapel Hill’s goal as “rais(ing) the general level of knowledge” in the student population.

It would be questionable if “someone were up there trying to teach the Koran as a belief,” she said. But in this case, the religious book represented a view into another culture, a perspective the UNC faculty viewed many students as lacking, she said.

“Should we (educators), observing a great ignorance of Islam and stereotyping of Muslims, do something about it? Absolutely,” she said. The fact that the topic in question is a religion doesn’t make it any less worthy or appropriate for discussion, she added.

“You can’t really get an education if it begins with the premise that there’s some book or doctrine that’s too dangerous for you,” she said.

Many UNC-Chapel Hill students said they were glad they read the book, and that the debate about it was overblown.

“We’re at a liberal arts school that’s supposed to open our minds. You’re supposed to get new perspective,” UNC-Chapel Hill first-year Matthew Neidich told the New York Times. “You don’t get new perspective by not trying to learn about new things.”

UNC student and Campus Crusade for Christ member Maggy Lampley praised her university’s decision.

“I don’t believe that ignorance of other religions is the guide that Christ set before us to follow,” Lampley told the Times.

The debate is not over yet. Another conservative group, the American Family Association, has vowed to pursue the original lawsuit, the school’s newspaper reported.

The University of Maryland also came under fire for its summer reading choice when it distributed copies of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of 21-year-old gay student Matthew Shepard.

The Family Policy Network, which claims the book promotes homosexuality, voiced opposition to the school’s decision on the FPN Web site, but wrote that FPN will not take legal action against the University of Maryland.