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Book Battle

August 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: A controversy erupted this summer when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill required its 3,500 incoming students to read “approaching the Qur’an: The early revelations” by Michael Sells. Administrators said the book was chosen because it was a good way for students to better understand Islam after September 11.

One group, the Family Policy Network, objected and sued the public university, asserting that requiring students to read the book amounts to religious indoctrination. Additionally, a North Carolina House Committee voted to ban the use of public funds for the university’s reading program unless other religions are granted equal time. That measure awaits action by the full house and senate and the governor.

Here to debate the issue are Joe Glover, president and founder of the Family Policy Network, a Christian organization, and Robert Shelton, provost and vice chancellor of the university. Welcome to you both. Joe Glover, explain what your objection is both to the book and to the university requiring it as reading for its incoming freshmen.

JOE GLOVER, Family Policy Network: Well, first of all, the concern is that you cannot force students to submit to religious indoctrination in a public university. A Supreme Court case in 1992 known as “Lee versus Weissman” disallowed that type of indoctrination, and in the case of this particular book “Approaching the Qur’an,” it’s a very one-sided presentation on Islam. It violates the neutrality that is required by the Supreme Court case from 1995 known as “Rosenberger vs. UVA.” The point of the book, actually, is to deal with the early passages that made it into the Qur’an.

The book is fine in and of itself in that it deals with a very specific aspect of the Qur’an, but it does not go into those passages that you find in those later supposed revelations to Mohammed from Allah which encourage violence toward Christians and Jews. Four, five, and nine are left out of this book. If the university is being sincere when they say they want to enlighten students in light of 9/11 on Islam, they would at least choose a book that covered the passages that the terrorists quote as justification for the acts like on September 11.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Shelton, what’s the university’s position?

ROBERT SHELTON, Vice Chancellor, University of North Carolina: Well, thank you. I think it’s important to keep in perspective the goals of the summer reading program. It’s in its fourth year. In each year we have chosen, that is, a committee of faculty, staff, and students have selected a book that we feel will introduce ideas and thoughts to students as opposed to forcing a position on people.

In every instance, we’ve had a topic that is of current cultural interest. It’s one that we feel brings forward ideas that our students are unlikely to have been exposed to in their upbringing to date. And we think this book does just that. I think the title of the book is very important. One: It talks about approaching the Qur’an. It is not an in-depth study of the Qur’an. It is an approach to it, and we feel it’s at least a place to start, to have a discussion on these ideas.

TERENCE SMITH: But Mr. Shelton, Mr. Glover says this is indoctrination, not enlightenment.

ROBERT SHELTON: Well, I think one does have to draw an important distinction between exposing people to ideas and engaging discussion of those ideas and putting forward those ideas as the only way one can view a situation. In this case, we have a two-hour discussion session planned. And in that session, I can tell from you previous experience, it will be just that, a discussion. It’s not going to be an indoctrination or a promotion of any one point of view.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, Joe Glover, how does that constitute indoctrination then?

JOE GLOVER: Well, it constitutes indoctrination because you have religious text written about the holy text of Islam, the Qur’an itself, written by a leading Islamist. It would be the moral equivalent of having a book written by someone like Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell about the New Testament, including New Testament passages, introducing students to New Testament Christianity from a particular perspective, which, if you had something like that, the ACLU would do back flips to get into court to stop it, because it would definitely fit the description of religious indoctrination.

TERENCE SMITH: So you, Mr. Glover, would object to that as well?

JOE GLOVER: Absolutely, because we wouldn’t expect a state university to get that right either, and quite frankly, taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. The ACLU has successfully argued in the past in the courts that taxpayers who disagree with Christianity should not foot the bill for Christian indoctrination. Well, there are a lot of people in North Carolina, as evidenced by that overwhelming vote last night in the legislature, to bar state funds from being used to foot the bill for this project. The taxpayers do not want to have their funds used for Islamic indoctrination, either.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Shelton, what about the legislative action that might affect the funds for the university? What’s your response to that?

ROBERT SHELTON: I’ll come back to the very factual presentation you made in your opening remarks. Namely, this was an action by a committee in one body of the legislature. And we see this, actually, as elevating the discussion from a reading assignment of a new book to one that deals with the question of the ability of a university to offer courses– if you look at the text, it references any course– to offer courses in a whole variety of religious topics unless all religions are discussed.

So if this bill, which was passed by a Committee in the House, were to be interpreted in its broadest sense, we would find that a number of our classes would be off limits. I think what you’re seeing here is a situation of the university’s ability to present controversial ideas. UNC Chapel Hill has a long history of presenting controversial ideas, of having free and open discussions on those ideas, and allowing people to make up their own minds. And we will continue to hold that position.

TERENCE SMITH: What about that, Mr. Glover? What about the idea of free and open discussion of controversial ideas?

JOE GLOVER: Free and open discussion, if the university wanted to seek such a thing, they would include a book in their summer reading program such as “Unveiling Islam” written by two former Muslims, who themselves were forced to attend youth Jihad meetings when they were children living in Columbus, Ohio. That type of book would shed more light on what took place on September 11, and it would really give the students the opportunity to see the whole picture about Islam. You have to wonder what the university is afraid of in giving them the entire picture of what Muslims around the world believe.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Shelton, beyond the question of funds from the state legislature, what’s at stake here, in this argument and for the university?

ROBERT SHELTON: Well, as I said earlier, I think the argument has been elevated from a summer reading program with a two-hour discussion that introduces a topic to individuals, to one that now gets at the heart of the university’s ability to hear all sides of an issue. There have been examples of this at UNC Chapel Hill in the past as there have been around the country, and in every instance, universities have prevailed in being a location and a place where ideas can be discussed.

I do think Mr. Glover makes a very good point in that this particular book is not the end all understand be all in studying the Qur’an. We’ve never intended it to be. There are, I’m sure hundreds, maybe thousands of books on that topic. And maybe by approaching the Qur’an, some of the students will be motivated to read more.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, apparently Mr. Glover’s objection is in part the selective quality of the book. Why not require the students to read the whole Qur’an?

JOE GLOVER: Well, again, I think have to take into the context. This is not a course in the Qur’an or in any other religious studies. It is a limited summer reading program, two-hour discussion. And I think we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, actually, in making this a topic of great interest to people in our current situation.

TERENCE SMITH: Mr. Glover, should the whole Qur’an be required reading, or is the requirement the issue for you, as opposed to an elective course?

JOE GLOVER: I’d feel better about the entire Qur’an being read rather than this book, which paints a rosy picture and leaves out the things that precipitated 9/11. The provost mentions something being elevated. If anything’s been elevated, it’s the concern of many taxpayers that they have no control over what takes place at a state university that seems to be bent on indoctrination toward students, the vast majority of North Carolinians disagree with.

Many of the lawmakers, including three that I spoke with last night, have said that they’ve gotten a plethora of e-mails, phone calls, and letters from constituents who have are very upset that the university is doing something that so many people disagree with.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Shelton, have you heard from the students about this? What do they say?

ROBERT SHELTON: You know, the feedback has been very interesting, and I’m sure feedback, no matter who is receiving it, can be highly selective. Early on, I was receiving a few e-mails, a few letters, but primarily from folks outside the state. And I would say the feedback was coming at about a 3:1 ratio in favor in commending the selection and the approach. Since recent articles in the media, and particularly the “Washington Post,” I’ve received a larger number of e-mails and correspondence, and they literally have all been complimentary, but I think that’s not the point here. I think we can each go out and generate our own sample of response.

I think the real key here is that all the feedback we’ve had from students has been one of interest. We have told those students and their parents that we expect them to come and participate in discussion. But if they do not, there’s no academic penalty for this. That’s been the theme of the summer reading program for all four years. For example, last year when I led a discussion on the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” I think probably 10 percent of my class hadn’t read it, but they stayed, and I think they profited from the discussion.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. We’ll have to stay tuned and see what the court says. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

ROBERT SHELTON: Thank you.

JOE GLOVER: Thank you having for us.