Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill engaged in discussion earlier this week about their summer reading assignment, a book called Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations that contains excerpts from the Quran, an assignment that has embroiled UNC in controversy this summer.
UNC took a courageous stance by assigning passages from the Quran, an assignment they must have known would invite controversy. The assignment is appropriate and timely, since in order to understand current events one must have some prerequisite background knowledge, and, for better or for worse, radical Islam and its practitioners dominate current events. As a result, it is essential that students delve into this important topic, since ultimately, gaining knowledge and promoting understanding is the core of academic pursuits.
Critics have lambasted UNC, a state-funded university, for promoting Islam in the wake of Sept. 11, contending that mandating students read the Quran is tantamount to establishing a state-sponsored religion. But these critics miss the essential fact that UNC's program is not promoting the Islamic faith. Quite the opposite: UNC is secularizing Islam and its teachings. Works such as the Quran and the Bible have value, be it literary, cultural or political, that is entirely separate from whatever religious value they may have.
Educated people must understand different, diverse religions and their texts. To prevent students from reading seminal works of civilization solely because they happen to be religious texts is ridiculous if the intent of such reading, be it the Quran, the Bible or Greek myths, is to emphasis the aesthetic beauty of the work or to encourage students to come to an objective understanding of the religion and its accompanying culture.
UNC does deserve some criticism for its specific selection of what book to read. While promoting an understanding of Islam is admirable and worthwhile, critics contend "Approaching the Quran" picks and chooses what portions of the Quran to include and intentionally leaves out parts of the Quran that terrorists and Islamic extremists use to justify their horrendous actions. How can UNC's students gain a complete and total understanding of Islam and its culture without understanding the entire Quran, peaceful and violent passages alike?
If UNC is serious about academic freedom and the understanding of different religion and cultures, it should present students with all the evidence, an unbiased and complete accounting of the Muslim faith that has not been whitewashed of its less savory elements, and allow students to make their own judgments. We applaud UNC for its decision to make its students read the Quran, an important work of world literature and civilization, but hope that in the future such attempts at cross-cultural inquiry present a complete picture of other cultures.
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