- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002


University of North Carolina freshmen, assigned to read a book on the Koran, were more puzzled by a challenge from a religious group, the school's chancellor said yesterday.

"For many of our students, the biggest question of the day seemed to be, 'What was the fuss all about?'" UNC Chancellor James Moeser said.

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Speaking to reporters at the National Press Club, Mr. Moeser said that even if a federal court had stopped the students from talking about the book last week, the discussions would have taken place informally.

Anticipating the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, officials at the university's Chapel Hill campus asked all 4,200 incoming freshmen and transfer students to read and be prepared to discuss "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells, a religion professor at Haverford College.

In July, three students and two taxpayers asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to stop the discussions, saying the requirement amounted to state sponsorship of religion.

The court ruled in favor of the university on Aug. 19, hours before the sessions were to begin. They went on as scheduled.

"We trusted our students' desire to think, to read and to learn and nothing terrible happened," Mr. Moeser said. "There were no known conversions. Carolina's religion remains basketball."

He said many students were puzzled about how followers of Islam could have committed the September 11 attacks.

"People want to understand what's going on here what's the nature of this religion?" he said.

Mr. Moeser called the book "a good introduction to Islam for one who stands outside the faith."

Before the sessions earlier this month, the North Carolina House proposed banning the use of public funds for such assignments unless other religions got equal time. A few legislators said their votes would have been no different had the book been a study of the Bible.

The state Senate has yet to take up the measure.

In response to the flap, North Carolina State University and East Carolina University passed resolutions in support of academic freedom. A committee of the UNC system's board of governors did likewise, though the board itself couldn't muster enough votes for the resolution.

Mr. Moeser said public universities nationwide often have a turbulent relationship with state lawmakers, but he didn't think the controversy would overtly influence funding or the university's ability to raise money from alumni.

He opened his remarks by reading from a handful of e-mail messages he received, including one that said: "May you find a pack of anthrax and a pipe bomb in your mailbox."

Others called the university "The Berkeley of the East Coast" and "The People's Republic of Chapel Hill."

Another said: "You are doing the work of Satan and you will someday perish in the Lake of Fire."

Mr. Moeser said he was proud of the freshmen and their discussions.

"They were civil, they were dispassionate, they were insightful," he said. "I think we did the right thing here."

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