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Reading Choice Debate Shines National Spotlight on Quran

Welcome freshmen, and thanks for all the publicity. I spent the summer in Austria, and even there I couldn't help but hear about our University's summer reading assignment.

One afternoon I visited CNN.com, which featured a story about the University. I didn't trust Ted Turner's network at first because any man who names a ballpark after himself is slimy.

But since then, I've seen the matter discussed on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor"

When incoming students met Monday to discuss "Approaching the Qur'án," the press descended on Chapel Hill like a N.C. State University cheerleader after a Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast.

Matthew Compton, a student who sat on the committee that selected "Approaching the Qur'án," said committee members were not naive enough to think that the choice would avoid second-guessing. But Compton said they didn't realize the decision would trigger such a media storm.

Frankly, I understand why the selection committee didn't foresee the controversy: because they didn't expect the Family Policy Network's lawsuit.

One would think that the FPN, a Virginia-based organization, would be more interested in solving Virginia's problems, such as chronic arrogance, rather than stirring up trouble south of the border.

One would be mistaken.

These crusaders proclaim to protect free speech but embody that noble idea by trying to keep us from reading books about cultures other than ours.

A more likely explanation for their interest involves a simple desire to be paid attention to. In any event, a major part of their argument revolves around the fact that "Approaching the Qur'án" leaves out several suras that advocate violence. Thus, the book is unfit to be assigned. Quoth Sammy L. Jackson, allow me to retort.

Carl Ernst, a UNC religious studies professor who recommended the book to the selection committee, wrote in an e-mail that the book translates 35 short suras at the end of the holy book, traditionally the first suras approached by someone studying the Quran -- hence the name.

Michael Sells, the author, did not omit three or four violent passages. He intentionally left out all but the oldest parts of the Quran. It's like someone translating Psalms as poetry and being belittled for not tackling some of the more violent parts of the Bible.

If Sells had written a book that was comparably detailed and covered the entire Quran, it would have been 10 times the length of the book he did write. Clearly, that's not a feasible reading assignment to be discussed in a two-hour session.

Secondly, for the University to encourage freshmen to read a book does not imply an endorsement of the teachings of that text. For example, I'm a political science major. No one argues that by requiring me to read Karl Marx's "Das Kapital," UNC is trying to turn me into a communist.

Nor does asking incoming freshmen and transfer students to read a translation and explanation of parts of the Quran imply that UNC is advocating Islam, or any version of it, as the one true faith.

The University has both a right and an obligation to expose its students to different points of view, whether those points of view are about God, capitalism or any other subject. To do less would be to fail in its mission to provide us a liberal arts education.

Alice Feagan, a freshman, came to UNC from Columbus for that education. She said she liked the reading assignment more than she thought she would, and she's heard more complaining from media figures than people in her town.

As for the media, Paul Begala, on an episode of CNN's "Crossfire," pointed out that its response has ensured discussion of Islam, and that's all the book's supporters wanted in the first place. Amen to that.

Dan Harrison is a junior political science and English major from Fayetteville who'd like to be a tiger if UNC's a zoo. Contact him at dsharris@email.unc.edu.

Copyright The Daily Tar Heel

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