In the last few weeks, a debate of Biblical (or Koranic) proportions has been shaping up in the state of North Carolina. The source is the decision at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to require its incoming freshman class to read a book called Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations as part of a summer assignment. Paradoxically, the argument over the book has resulted in a conservative Christian organization filing a lawsuit on behalf of several students against the university because (according to them) teaching religion in a public university violates the boundary between church and state. In contrast, normally anti-religious groups like the ACLU have rushed to the defense of UNC.
The debate is being portrayed in the media as being between evangelical Christians, who believe that Islam is being given a free pass on the church-state issue, and academics, who believe that a greater understanding of the Muslim world is necessary for ending the mutual intolerance between the two communities.
UNC advocates seem to be genuinely worried that there is an undercurrent of intolerance towards Islam in the West. Approaching the Qur'an author Michael Sells recently revealed this fear in a Washington Post opinion piece where he claimed of his detractors: "For them, Islam is clearly our enemy. How can we trust our Muslim neighbor or colleague, knowing that behind a gesture of friendship may lie an intention to kill? Shall we allow Muslims into the police or armed forces? If we cannot always tell them by name or appearance, shall we require them to wear some kind of sign? In Bosnia, such reckless notions led some Christians to attack defenseless Muslim neighbors."
While some prominent evangelical leaders have said inflammatory and hateful things about Islam, calling it "evil," and have made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad, they are still right about this being a double standard. Jerry Falwell, perhaps proving the old adage about even the stopped clock being right twice a day, observed that, "Kids can't say the Pledge of Allegiance at school because it mentions God. Students also may not allude to their faith at high school graduations, pray before football games or be instructed in abstinence programs that utilize Biblical scripture (all recent court rulings). But this university can force college students to take a course on Islam."
Does requiring students to study Islam in a public university violate the First Amendment? Probably. Some of our humanities courses require incoming freshman to study the book of Genesis, but students can take other Humanities classes than feature no religious texts (unless one still worships Zeus). There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims studying Islam, but they should do it of their own free will. Students who are required to study Islam will probably just do the assigned work and then go back to their normal studies. Students who want to study Islam will probably make many of the same observations that I'm about to make.
Islam is more than just the Koran. Programs like UNC's try to fit the religion into the Judeo-Christian mold by explaining everything through the Koran. That approach overlooks the sayings and traditions (hadith) of Muhammad, which are not in the Koran, but are the primary vehicles from which Islamic morality has been derived. If a subject isn't mentioned in the Koran, it's usually dealt with in a hadith. However, people searching for answers about September 11 need to look beyond the Islamic religion to the Islamic culture.
Just as there is a difference between the Christian religion and the secular history of the Christian world, there is also a difference between Islam and the Muslim world (umma). Like any civilization, the Muslim world is extremely complex and can't be understood through do-it-yourself summer reading. There are many historical and cultural traditions that someone reading Approaching the Qur'an would have little exposure to. For example, Muhammad was credited with practicing a very humane form of warfare, but compare his behavior to the Ottoman Turks, devout Muslims who used to impale Byzantine heads outside the walls of Constantinople.
Also, by focusing on the Koran, UNC is ignoring the rise of Islamism, a twentieth century movement hostile to the West that is more political than religious. It's like reading a book on communism that talks about Marx and Engels, but ignores Lenin and Stalin. This approach also gives off the impression that modern anti-Western violence is derived from Islam itself, as opposed to coming from its practitioners (this is the error that the Christian Right also makes).
Few people believe that the extermination of Al Qaeda will change the feelings of mistrust between the Christian and Muslim worlds. However, anyone who thinks that all our problems would be solved if non-Muslims would just read the Koran is naïve at best. UNC's summer program is only a cursory and misguided step towards understanding the problems facing the umma today, which go far beyond religion.
But this all leads to a larger point: the war on terrorism is between two cultures, not two religions. The attacks on America were not part of an epic clash of faiths, but rather an extension of a secular civil war going on right now in the umma between corrupt autocracies and the huddled masses yearning to be free. We can only end this conflict by bringing political freedom to the Middle East, not with academic sensitivity training.