The University of North Carolina aptly chose a book about Islam as summer reading for incoming freshmen this fall. Few subjects are hotter in post-9/11 America.
But the university probably didn't anticipate just how much heat it would take for its decision. TV talk shows have debated whether students should be required to learn about Islam. A conservative group, the Family Policy Network, has filed a lawsuit asserting that since UNC is publicly funded, its summer-reading requirement violates the Constitution's ban on "establishment" of religion.
The university argues it just wants to encourage new students to think analytically about a subject affecting their world. Doubtless, the reading, followed by discussions on campus, will expose many students to Islamic teachings for the first time. But the academic setting will not be one of indoctrination, of promoting religion.
Students who object to the assignment can write a short essay explaining their objections. Those who don't read the book won't be penalized.
The school's critics also object that the book selected by UNC, "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael A. Sells, is a sanitized view of the religion, leaving out those parts of the text that advocate slaying of infidels. The author, in fact, has explained that he purposely concentrated on older sections of the text that don't deal with violence.
But it's hard to imagine that student discussions won't delve into the contrast between what they've read and radical Islamists' call for jihad against perceived enemies of Islam. That's a useful discussion. Some students may recognize parallels in their own sacred texts Â– for example grimmer sections of the Old Testament versus passages like the 23rd Psalm.
Discussions among UNC freshmen will be a small part of much new thinking about the teachings of Islam. The hate-filled interpretations that try to justify the taking of innocent life impel a harder look at just what this world religion teaches. Even in Saudi Arabia, where a stridently conservative form of Islam holds sway, voices of moderation and fresh interpretation are starting to be heard.
Those who would keep students from gaining some insight into Islam have to take care they're not mirroring the intolerance they profess to abhor. Learning about another religion should be no threat to one's own. It should give a broader understanding of mankind's search for the divine.