WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- A new controversy is percolating in North Carolina over the proposed reading of a book about the Koran -- the Muslim holy book -- by freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The book in question is called "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," and is authored by Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks believed to be have been perpetuated by Islamist fundamentalists operating under directives from Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida terror organization, public interest and awareness of Islam, and the Arab world in general, has risen sharply in the United States.
The simple fact that American students should read a book about the Koran (or Qur'an) has ruffled quite a few feathers.
First, a Christian group urged three students to file suit against the university earlier this week. And now, North Carolina's Republican State Representative Sam Ellis told a local radio station he did not want the students in the university system to study "this evil."
Ellis continued: "If they wish to pursue it on their own, or if they wish to pursue it as an elective, that's fine. But I don't think it is something our university system should be encouraging."
According to the Washington Post, the lawsuit against UNC was filed July 22 in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., by the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, which calls itself a "socially conservative Christian educational organization."
In their complaint, the plaintiffs charge that UNC indoctrinates students with deceptive claims about the peaceful nature of Islam, violating the separation of church and state.
In fact, the book makes no general claims about Islam.
But the move to ban the book -- and the accompanying debate -- has also upset Muslim- and Arab-Americans.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations demanded an apology from Ellis. They also called on President George W. Bush to speak out against the rising level of anti-Muslim rhetoric in America.
"The level of anti-Muslim rhetoric from commentators, religious leaders, and now elected officials, is getting out of hand and is poisoning the minds of many ordinary Americans. Only a strong statement from President Bush will put these people on notice that anti-Muslim bigotry will not be accepted in our society," said CAIR Board Chairman Omar Ahmad.
Earlier this week, CAIR made a similar call after Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, said terrorism is part of "mainstream" Islam and claimed the Koran, "preaches violence."
A popular television commentator on the Fox News network went as far as saying teaching the Koran is similar to teaching Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in 1941. Indeed, had more people familiarized themselves with Hitler's writing, they might well have learned of his true evil intentions. And wasn't it Mao Zedong who said that the first step in defeating your enemy is to know him?
"Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat," wrote China's Chairman Mao in his little Red Book.
Assuming that Islam is the enemy as some people would like us to believe -- although it has been established that it isn't -- then, would it not in fact make far greater sense to study it, become familiarized with it, and learn what exactly it is that motivates people to attack this country, if indeed it is the Koran that provides these murderous incentives?
No sooner had the dust of the Sept. 11 assaults had settled, that Bush and scores of community leaders across the nation urged Americans not to blame Islam.
Since the September attacks, security agencies -- among them the FBI and the CIA -- have been scurrying to recruit Arabic, Pashtun and Farsi speakers. Would it not therefore make more sense for these students to be aware of Islam's traditions and teachings, as well as the language?
Bin Laden's terrorists, much like the suicide bombers in Israel and the cold-blooded murderers who killed Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, are zealots who have taken the Muslim holy book to suit their own interpretation of the prophet's teachings. You don't need to look very far to find the same type of fire and brimstone revelations in the Christian-Judeo Bible, either. Both holy books can be interpreted to suit the reader.
The Crusaders slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent Muslims simply because they happened to be of a different religion, not to mention those killed under the Spanish Inquisition. Should we stop school children and university students from learning about that, too? What about the French or the American revolutions? They were not bloodless, either. Truth be told, with few exceptions, most revolutions resulted in the spilling of innocent blood, as is the history of most world religions.
In his fascinating book "Warriors of God," James Reston, Jr. describes how on Aug. 22, 1191, during the Third Crusade in the Holy Land, King Richard the Lionheart ordered 2,700 Muslim soldiers tied together and marched out from Acre to the road to Nazareth where they were arrayed on a plain, and then, one by one, slaughtered. "'For this be the Creator blessed!' wrote the chief poet of the Crusade."
When Pope Innocent III sent his Crusader army to deal with the rebellious Cathars in the south of France in 1209, one officer was reported to have asked how they could differentiate between the Albigensian heretics and the Catholics inhabitants of Beziers, who refused to turn on their fellow city dwellers and cooperate with the invading papal troops.
"Kill them all, God will sort his own," purportedly came the reply from Arnaud Amaury, a former priest, who was archbishop and Duke of Narbonne, and spiritual leader of the Crusade.
Religious fanaticism, as history teaches us, is nothing new, nor exclusive to any one religion.
Are we therefore to enlarge the literary censorship list? Or better yet, should we start burning books and instead, encourage people to watch mindless programs on television, as in Ray Bradbury's futuristic novel, "Fahrenheit 451?"
(The Culture Vulture is a column written by UPI's Life & Mind editor, and reflects on current trends, issues and events. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.)