Michael Sells, author of Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, spoke at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Thursday night, addressing the nationwide controversy sparked by the assignment of his book as required reading for the university's freshmen.
Sells, a Haverford College professor of religion, voiced support for the university's decision to study a religious text in the classroom and addressed issues related to Islam. The university required its incoming freshmen either to read the book--which is meant as a partial translation and analysis of the Qur'an for readers with little or no knowledge of Islam--or to write an essay explaining why studying the text would violate their personal religious beliefs.
Sells argued that the assignment of his book did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. He said there is a significant difference between studying a religion and proselytizing one, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized this difference.
"There have been readings from the Bible in many required courses, particularly in law schools, for generations," Sells told a receptive crowd at Hill Hall Auditorium. He said he felt fortunate to live in a nation where such academic freedom is allowed, as opposed to nations such as Pakistan and Bosnia, where controversial ideas are often suppressed.
Sells has visited Bosnia and in 1993 co-founded the Community for Bosnia, an organization that works toward the creation of a tolerant and multi-religious society in the war-torn nation.
"Fortunately, our society has protections [on academic freedom] now," he said. "But my experience in Bosnia is that these protections can break down."
Sells said his goal as a teacher is to give students an understanding of why Islam is so important to millions of people. He said the Qur'an is especially difficult to translate since it is often expressed orally, as opposed to read silently, in the classical Islamic world. Word meanings can be changed by the way in which they are spoken, thus rendering any English translation at least slightly incoherent.
However, he said many have misunderstood his work. He cited conservative author William Buckley, who claimed Sells' work portrayed Islam as a more peaceful religion than it really is. Buckley had never read the book, however, and cited his source as Time Magazine. Sells likened such commentary to the game of "telephone," in which words are whispered from ear to ear until they are changed completely, causing misunderstanding.
"This game has been carried away in this controversy," he said. "I call it 'megaphone.'"
Sells said he does not consider Islam to be a "religion of peace," as some have charged. He argues that all religions are far too complex for such a simple label.
Sells' points resonated with the audience. Steve Piantadosi, a freshman at UNC who said he read the required assignment, said he did not observe any major controversy over the assignment of the book in his class.
"I pretty much agreed with him," he said. "No one in my class was really upset about it."
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Duke senior Stephanie Kien, who attended the speech, supported UNC's decision but understood how some people could be confused by the assignment.
"I think it's hard for people to separate understanding religions and being religious," she said.
Though a lawsuit generated by the reading requirement has been dismissed, the North Carolina state legislature has threatened to cut funding for the freshman reading program unless the assignment is dropped from the syllabus.
"Many have argued that because the University of North Carolina chose a book that is controversial, they made a mistake," said Sells. "But sometimes if one makes the right decision for the right reasons, the aftereffect of that decision may be a public service."