History News Network 7 29 02 Culture

History News Network

7-29-02: Culture Watch

Should College Kids Be Required to Read About the Koran?

By Juan Cole

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigns three books to incoming students every year. This year, one of the books, by Michael Sells of Haverford College, is about the Koran. Amazingly, the assignment of the book has sparked controversy and now a lawsuit.

The legal action by three anonymous students is supported by a right-wing Christian organization, the Family Policy Network. It alleges that the students’ first amendment rights are being violated by a form of religious indoctrination. The lawsuit further alleges that Sells’s book translates only the early chapters of the Koran, leaving out the later, more militant verses that were quoted by the al-Qaida terrorists.

Since the title of Sells’s book is Approaching the Qur’an, Early Revelations the last charge may presumably be acknowledged from the outset. The book was never intended to be a holistic overview of Islam or even of the Koran. Students at UNC do not even have to read the text, and can simply hand in to the professor a 300 word essay on why they declined to do so.

Robert Kirkpatrick, a UNC professor of English who was among the faculty members who made the decision to adopt the book, says he knew nothing of the tenets of Islam before reading this book. Bill O’Reilly (July 10) brought up in an interview the “indoctrination” issue. Kirkpatrick said, “No, it has nothing to do with that. It’s a text that studies the poetic structure of the Koran and seeks to explain why it has such an effect on two billion people in the world.”

O’Reilly riposted by comparing the class reading of a book about the Koran now to assigning Mein Kampf or a work about Japanese emperor worship during World War II. He let slip his reasoning, saying, “But I’m telling you, these are our enemies now. I mean, the Islamic fundamentalism is our enemy”-only catching himself with the second sentence.

How non-Muslim professors could indoctrinate students into Islam is unclear. Moreover, as Sells points out, Bible texts are routinely read in university classes on Western civilization. In response to this argument, Joe Glover of the Family Policy Network said on Hannity & Colmes (July 26) that he would be equally opposed to the assignment of a book by Jerry Falwell on the Gospels “because I wouldn’t expect them to get that right either.” Glover claims a knowledge monopoly such that he and those who think as he does “get” everything, including the Koran, “right.”

In fact, the Koran grew up in the early 600s in a multicultural Arabia and approves of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It says that “Chistians are closest to Muslims in love,” and that righteous Jews and Christians have no fear of hellfire. The phrase in some renderings commanding that Muslims should not take Christians and Muslims as “friends” is a translation error. The text refers not to friends but to “patrons.” It was a custom in Arabia for weak clients to adopt powerful protectors, but it gave non-Muslims the leverage to make newly converted Muslims leave Islam.

Sells’s book is about the early phase of Islam, when the Muslims were persecuted by powerful pagans who violently rejected its message of monotheism and its praise of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary. The later wars of the Muslims were against an aggressive Mecca determined to wipe them out. Why it is wrong for the Koran to urge the destruction of battlefield enemies but not for the Book of Joshua, Donald Rumsfeld, and Jerry Falwell himself to do so is unclear to me. On the other hand, the Koran forbids naked aggression.

That merely having American university students know something serious about the Muslim scriptures should be controversial suggests that our society is not as informed or tolerant as we like to think. President Bush has been careful to insist that the enemy of the U.S. is not Islam or Muslims, but a fringe of terrorists. Those to his Right disagree with him, and wish to demonize all Muslims as enemies of America. Likening the Koran to Mein Kampf or banning it from U.S. classrooms may have the unfortunate effect of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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