NEWS FLASH: North Carolina failed this week to make Islam the official state religion. Nor did it compel residents to profess that there is no God but Allah.
If you have a hard time believing that the Tar Heel state was threatening to do such a thing, you are not alone. Earlier this week, a court rightly slapped down a lawsuit making the claim that the First Amendment would be imperiled by the college classes that began in Chapel Hill on Monday.
How did this whole contretemps come about? Every year the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill requires new undergraduate students to participate in a summer reading program. The students read an assigned book and write an essay. On the first day of school they divide up into discussion groups.
This year's text was "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells of Haverford College. The book is a translation of 35 suras from the Koran chosen by Sells on account of their being, according to Muslims, the first revelations to Muhammad. These suras concern the nature of God and man's duties. Sells adds brief commentaries.
University of North Carolina officials probably wouldn't have picked the book but for what happened on September 11. They wanted students matriculating this year--says the school's website--to understand "the great traditions of Islam." By July, however, the charge was being made that the book treats much too sympathetically a religion in whose name al Qaeda terrorists killed thousands of Americans.
This being America, someone had to sue, and they did. The Family Policy Network, a politically conservative, Christian group, claimed that the reading program violates the First Amendment's ban on establishing a religion and prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Its lawsuit read like a parody of something the ACLU might file to further separate church and state. The university endeavored to teach about Islam, selectively, yes, but not, as the Family Policy Network claimed, to "proselytize" in its behalf. If assigning "Approaching the Qur'an" is unconstitutional, then so would be assigning, say, a book presenting stories from the Bible. It is unfathomable that the Constitution would so hamstring higher education.
Late last week U.S. District Judge Carlton Tilley (a Reagan appointee) declined to intervene. And then, on Monday, mere hours before the freshmen met in discussion groups, the appeals court in Richmond, Virginia (routinely described by liberal interest groups as too conservative), turned down an appeal. And so it was that the reading program went on that afternoon, apparently without any conversions to Islam.
The story is not over, however. Some state legislators want to impose on the university a requirement that it give equal time to all religions. Imagine, should that dubious proposal become law, an assigned reading next year on Scientology or Wicca.
Still, the legal battle is only part of the controversy, and it is true that the educators at Chapel Hill have gaps to fill. Anyone reading Sells's book and then trying to relate its content to September 11 is going to be confused. "I see one thing [violence by Muslims] on TV," a student told the New York Times, "and another in the book. I'm not sure what to think."
What the students need to know are the roots of Muslim rage, on which the estimable Bernard Lewis has written cogently. More specifically, they need to know about Wahhabism, the strain of Islam, less than three centuries old, that is the official religion of Saudi Arabia (no separation of mosque and state and thus no First Amendment litigation there!). Osama bin Laden and company are Wahhabis. Wahhabism is violent, intolerant and fanatical in the extreme--with adherents even here in the United States.
One of the first American scholars to identify the threat posed by Wahhabism before September 11 was . . . Michael Sells. He's visiting Chapel Hill next month. A lecture encompassing Wahhabism might help the university rescue itself from a summer reading program that now deserves a grade of "incomplete."
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard and editor of "Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court."