CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Brynn Hardman was all set to sit back and glide through some Danielle Steel on Atlantic Beach this summer.
Just graduated from high school in Raleigh, N.C., she was looking forward to a bit of light fare before hitting the heavy tomes of freshman year. Instead, the tanned teen is immersed in the curlicue phrasings of what would have been her personal last choice for beachside reading: the Koran.
Ms. Hardman and 3,500 other soon-to-be freshmen at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill have a controversial assignment: to delve into excerpts of a text invoked by the Sept. 11 terrorists. Only two pages into "Approaching the Qur'an," by Michael Sells, Hardman says the book is "an awful choice."
For the past three years, UNC freshmen have been handed summer reading tasks on topics such as the growth of Civil War reenactments and the Vietnam War. But this year's choice raises a question other campuses are likely to face as the US wages its war on terrorism: How far should a public school go in educating students about religion when the faith in question sits at the center of present-day conflicts and is closely linked in many students' minds to terror?
"The timing couldn't be worse," says Jody Hardman, a public school teacher who's on campus with her daughter for an orientaton session. "At a time when we're told we can't say 'under God' during the pledge, here's a public school assigning the Koran."
Last week, three students and a conservative Christian organization took their discontent a step further, and filed a lawsuit.
UNC officials say they have not only the prerogative but the responsibility to open students' eyes to the Muslim religion and culture. Indeed, pundits here on campus say UNC's experiment should be a call to other institutions to follow suit for the good of the country.
But critics say this bulwark of liberal thought a campus where antiwar signs went up even before bombs had begun falling over Afghanistan has crossed the line by forcing students to read the book.
The controversy simply fuels UNC's reputation of chief gadfly here, smack in the heart of Baptist country. People with religious objections can opt out by writing an essay explaining why, but they still must attend a group discussion when they arrive in mid-August.
"The question is, what's the big role of the university here?" says Carl Ernst, the religious-studies professor who recommended the book to a selection committee of faculty, staff, and students.
"[Critics] assume the choice represents advocacy, but we just want to advance knowledge," he says. "This will not explain the terrorist attacks of last September, but this will be a first step toward understanding something important about Islamic spirituality, and to see its adherents as human beings."
So far, no other university has gone so far as to mandate the reading of the Koran, although many schools have seen renewed interest in religious and international studies after Sept. 11.
For many people, a quick perusal of "Approaching the Qur'an" would dispel the idea that this assignment is a scheme to proselytize. Instead, the book about the "early revelations," which includes a CD of sung prayer, delves into the mystery and poetry of the spoken Koran. It explores how the text has wended its way into the hearts of 1 billion people and deep into the framework of politics and culture in the East.
"The purpose of this book is neither to refute nor to promote the Qur'anic message," Mr. Sells writes. "Rather, the goal is to allow those who do not have access to the Qur'an in its recited, Arabic form to encounter one of the most influential texts in human history in a manner that is accessible."
For the parents of freshman Jennifer DeCurtis of Asheville, N.C., the choice of a book that focuses on a major world religion is appropriate even during a war with religious overtones.
"I think it will open their thinking up to what Islam is really all about," says dad David DeCurtis. "And I think that's an appropriate role for a school like UNC."
Some parents, on the other hand, have refused to let their children attend because of the assignment. Other parents and alumni have called the chancellor to complain.
What's more, the ACLU has vowed to oversee some of the discussion groups, which will be led by about 180 faculty volunteers who were trained this summer. School officials say the program will "pass the smell test." But they won't comment on the lawsuit, which was filed by three freshmen of various religious backgrounds and the Virginia-based Family Policy Network.
John Sanders, a fellow at the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., which has long questioned a variety of university actions, says he wouldn't have a problem if the school was merely urging teenagers to read the text before they come to school. It's the requirement that rubs.
"We're at war, after all," says Mr. Sanders. "This isn't akin to teaching the Bible. We do need to understand them, yes, but it's not the best thing to cram this down people's throats right now."
Still, Fred Eckel, faculty adviser for the Campus Crusade for Christ, says that studying a variety of religious texts may not be a bad idea, especially since the school already has an energetic religious-studies department.
"As a person who supports prayer in schools, it makes no sense to object to the use of other religious texts in the classroom, as long as the discussions are appropriate," Professor Eckel says. "It's a positive thing to discuss issues in the Koran, and it may also further discussions that need to be going on within the Christian community."
For Professor Ernst, the choice to bring the Koran to Baptist country isn't so revolutionary. He points to the narrative of Omar Ibin Sayyid, a Muslim brought here as a slave from Africa in the 18th century and the subject of an exhibit soon to go up at the Ackland Museum on campus.
"Studies suggest that about 15 percent of slaves were indeed Muslims," he says.
What's more, many of North Carolina's cities which have attracted Middle Easterners seeking jobs and education are now dotted with mosques. One local Muslim was arrested during the post-Sept. 11 investigations last fall, and a national newsweekly recently documented that at least one "American Al Qaeda" made his home in the region before departing for the Middle East.
At its heart, however, the assignment is meant to give insight into why the Koran has such a strong hold on its adherents, UNC officials say. They point out that the book also makes clear that the Koran condemns using the term jihad, or struggle, as a justification for politically based battles one of the main differences of opinion between the Sept. 11 terrorists and many other Muslims.
As author Sells writes: "At the day of reckoning ... meaning and justice are brought together. The Qur'an warns those who reject the day of reckoning and who are entrenched in lives of acquisition and injustice that an accounting awaits them. Yet these warnings are not more dire or grim than the warnings the biblical Jesus gives in the parables about burning and gnashing of teeth. And in Qur'anic recitation, all Qur'anic passages on alienation between
humankind and God are dominated by a tone, not of anger or wrath, but of sadness."
Such messages are important, UNC faculty and administrators say, to counter the hate-filled rhetoric put forth by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals who see themselves at war with the Western world.
"If Americans don't want to learn about them because of the attacks last September, we are missing an opportunity to advance ourselves and learn about who we are, as well," Ernst says. "After all, there are more Muslims in the US than Jews."
UNC Chancellor James Moeser, who approved the committee's book choice, says "this is Chapel Hill being Chapel Hill. People are proud of us for doing this. I had a representative from a Jewish group here tell me, 'Here I am, a Jew teaching about the Koran to Southern Baptists.' The point is, this is the front door to an exciting experience and a sample of what they will be getting at Chapel Hill."
Predictably, perhaps, students who were on campus this summer for an orientation largely criticized the assignment.
Ford Williams doesn't mind being forced to study during his last official summer of childhood. His objection is more personal. A soccer standout at Broughton, he and his team were in Trinidad and Tobago on Sept. 11. While the tourney went on, armed guards kept the team under close watch. The players found it almost impossible to concentrate.
"I don't really care about learning about [Muslims] right now," he says. "I'm not in an enlightened state of mind. If anything, I want to worry about ourselves, and turn to our own religion."
Kevin Silva from Bedford, Mass., agrees: "I feel kind of forced to do something I wouldn't normally do."
But their new friend Jon Van Assen from South River, N.J., takes a more pragmatic view of the assignment: "It's provocative, but that's what gets people thinking," he says.
Mr. Williams adds a final assessment: "It's not like reading 'Tom Sawyer,' that's for sure."
Alice Jonsson contributed to this story.