Entry from August 13, 2002

The question of whether or not Michael Sells’s book, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, should be required reading for the incoming freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has already become one for the “culture wars.” Pavlovian responses on both sides suggest that no one really wants a “debate,” as such affairs are routinely but erroneously called. For the left, the normally repugnant fact that religious study of a sort is being sponsored by a state institution is trumped by the fact that the religion belongs to the latest enemies of the United States, a.k.a. “The Great Satan,” and its world hegemony. For the right, routine complaints about a too-rigid separation of church and state have given way to a semi-bacteriological theory of religion: that he who touches Islam will be contaminated by the philosophy of the terror-state.

Yet things are not so bad as either side likes to make out — and both sides would have good points to make if there were a genuine debate. Mr Sells’s supporters, the ACLU and the characteristically spineless university administrators at Chapel Hill are perfectly correct in saying that it is completely unfair of conservatives to imply that they are apologists for terrorism just because they believe in studying Islam. But the conservatives are also right to say that the version of Islam given in Mr Sells’s book is bowdlerized, and many of the more bloodthirsty texts from the Koran, particularly those to do with the slaying of infidels — by which is intended most of those who will read these words — are silently omitted.

The Sells/UNC gang is right to reply that there’s also a lot of stuff in the Jewish and Christian scriptures about smiting the unbeliever that no one (or hardly anyone) takes seriously anymore. The religion as practised by the vast majority of Muslims is at any rate no more violent than Christianity or Judaism. But, reply the conservatives, the minority of Muslims who are prepared to kill the infidels is much larger than any similar minority of Christians or Jews. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “The next time a terrorist cites Joshua as his rationale for murdering thousands of innocent civilians, let us know.” Besides, there is the matter of good taste and decorum. Reading the Koran now, says Bill O’Reilly, is like reading Mein Kampf in 1942.

That may be a little over the top — and some might say that, on the principle of know-thine-enemy, 1942 was just the time that a sensible man would have chosen to read Mein Kampf. But it is a remark which suggests the kind of cultural chauvinism that rings all the left’s Pavlovian bells — even if it cannot be quite true that, as Mr. Sells claims, “behind the lawsuit” being brought by Christian students at UNC “is an old missionary claim that Islam is a religion of violence in contrast to Christianity, a religion of peace” and that therefore, “in effect, the plaintiffs are suing the Koran on behalf of the Bible.” Yet it would be idle to deny that at least part of the objection to being forced to learn about Islam does seem to be based on a belief in the superiority of Christianity.

To that, conservatives might want to reply: What’s your point? Christianity is superior.

And there is the nub of the matter. Mr Sells is a professor of “comparative religions.” Neither Haverford College, where he teaches, nor the University of North Carolina could continue to exist as academic institutions (except in the sense that the Islamic madrassahs are academic institutions) if they thought that it was possible to say that one religion was superior to another. Yet their strictly neutral, “comparative religions” approach to the whole question is hardly one that it is reasonable to expect from either Christians or Muslims themselves. Presumably, the believers belonging to both faiths think that theirs is superior. If they didn’t they would be professors of comparative religion rather than practising believers.

The mistake being made on both sides is to suppose that the academic study of religions can have anything to do with influencing the kinds of things that people are prepared to do in their name. Belief is not a matter of studying history or theology or Biblical (or Koranic) exegesis. All these things come later and can scarcely make sense anyway without the belief which renders them important. But without the kind of dabbling in them that the students of comparative religions engage in what would the “tolerance” industry have to do? It should be remembered that the whole business began as a kind of memorial to the events of September 11th and in the mistaken belief that those events had something to do with intolerance of different religions.

In fact, we don’t even know if the hijackers were believing Muslims. Certainly, some of the things they did while living undercover in this country were inconsistent with such belief. We also know that many of the suicide bombers in Israel are avowedly secular in their motivations. But even if they, or those on whom we are now making war, should claim to be Muslim “fundamentalists,” how does learning about what to most American teenagers must appear their bizarre religion make greater tolerance likely? The sad fact is that, like most academic studies these days, the UNC teach-in is all for the sake of making the teachers feel better, and more virtuous, for showing off their own tolerance in public. And why does the state sponsor that?

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