Saying `no' to knowledge

August 09, 2002

THE PATH to truth and understanding leads directly through knowledge and learning, and bypasses ignorance and intolerance.

Worn as that platitude may be, it bears repeating again in the context of a very silly lawsuit that has been filed against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Virginia-based Family Policy Network is asking a court to stop UNC from requiring 3,500 incoming students to read Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, a book most scholars describe as an effort to help nonbelievers see what Islam's 1.2 billion adherents find appealing about the religion.

The Family Policy Network sees it differently. Its lawsuit says UNC's mandatory reading requirement amounts to an attempt to convert the students. And because UNC is a public school, funded by taxpayer dollars, the network says that constitutes a violation of the First Amendment's required separation of church and state.

The litigation is worth a chuckle, given the Family Policy Network's ardent support of public school vouchers for religious education. (Would not public school students be required to read many religious texts if they used their vouchers to attend parochial schools?)

It's also likely to get laughed out of court, given its faulty legal premise.

But there is an even more gaping lapse of logic in the Family Policy Network's attack on UNC. The Family Policy Network and its backers -- who object to the students studying Islam more than they object to the idea of religious study -- are embracing a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks that is not only wrong-headed, but also dangerous.

They're indulging the notion that Muslim equals terrorist, and that Sept. 11 somehow exposed Islam as the enemy of the free world. Those specious theories find their basis in absurdity and bigotry, not reason or logic.

Like the Ku Klux Klan, terrorists who cloak their deeds in Islamic fervor are hijackers of religious doctrine -- not true believers or representatives. Like cross-burnings and lynchings, the Sept. 11 attacks were about hate -- not faith.

It's also rather inane to assume that if all of Islam were the enemy, ignorance would be the weapon of choice. Knowledge has always proved a more powerful ally.

UNC had the right idea to begin with: to expose its students to a religion they likely know little about but have good reasons to begin to understand. Broadening your horizons is what college is all about.

What the Family Policy Network's overreaction proves is how desperate the need is for expanded knowledge and understanding on this subject.

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