August 9, 2002

· Sociology

The Washington Post reports that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “finds itself besieged in federal court and across the airwaves by Christian evangelists and other conservatives” for assigning incoming freshmen a book about Islam. The Post reports that Fox News Network’s Bill O’Reilly “compared the assignment to teaching ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1941 and questioned the purpose of making freshmen study ‘our enemy’s religion.’”

O’Reilly’s analogy is laughable. Mein Kampf is not the sacred text of a major world religion, and moreover in 1941 “our enemy’s religion” was the same as ours. Do people take this sort of grandstanding seriously? I don’t know.

In addition to O’Reilly’s ranting, an organization called the Family Policy Network has filed a lawsuit against UNC in federal court. They claim that assigning the book is unconstitutional because it amounts to proselytizing for a particular religion. Last year UNC assigned its freshmen The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a superb book about a Hmong family with an epileptic child, and their experiences with the U.S. medical system. Was this proselytizing Hmong beliefs? Of course not. And neither is this year’s book, Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an. It’s food for thought and discussion. It makes you more informed about Islam and where it comes from. Given the current political circumstances, this can only be a good thing.

There is an irony here. The capacity to read a high-quality translation like Sells’ is something the Islamic world generally lacks. Only last month, the Arab Human Development Report found that, each year, the entire Islamic world translates less than one fifth the number of books that Greece does. If anything, people like Bill O’Reilly should be pointing to Sells’ work, and UNC’s choice of it, as a sign of the openness and vitality of U.S. culture.

Of course, it would be a mistake to pat ourselves on the back and stop there. Ideally, Sells’ book ought to be the starting point for some deeper thinking about the relationship between religion and social structure. Do muslim societies look the way they do for distinctively religious reasons? Why don’t Western Europe and the U.S. look that way? Do the differences have something to do with the particular character of Islamic and Christian beliefs? Sociologists have asked comparative questions like this since Max Weber asked what role the ethics of the world religions play in social and economic change. The answers aren’t simple. Easy generalizations about the inherent character of Christianity or Islam are likely to be wrong. On this point, I’m reminded of a comment Ernest Gellner made in his brilliant essay, “Flux and Reflux in the Faith of Men”:

I like to imagine what would have happened had the Arabs won at Potiers and gone on to conquer and Islamise Europe. No doubt we should all be admiring Ibn Weber’s The Kharejite Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which would conclusively demonstrate how the modern rational spirit and its expression in business and bureaucratic organization could only have arisen in consequence of the sixteenth-century neo-Kharejite puritanism in northern Europe. In particular, the work would demonstrate how modern economic and organizational rationality could never have arisen had Europe stayed Christian, given the inveterate proclivity of that faith to a baroque, manipulative, patronage-ridden, quasi-animistic and disorderly vision of the world. A faith so given to seeing the cosmic order as bribable by pious works and donations could never have taught its adherents to rely on faith alone and to produce and accumulate in an orderly, systematic and unwavering manner. Would they not always have blown their profits on purchasing tickets to eternal bliss, rather than going on to accumulate profits and more? … Altogether, from the viewpoint of an elegant philosophy of history, which sees the story of mankind as a sustained build-up to our condition, it would have been far more satisfactory if the Arabs had won. By various obvious criteria—universalism, scripturalism, spiritual egalitarianism, the extension of full participation in the sacred community not to one, or some, but to all, and the rational systematisation of social life—Islam is, of the three great Western Monotheisms, the one closest to modernity. (Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1981, 7.)

Universities cultivate the ability to understand, assess and respond to an argument like that. The effort to broaden the horizons of students by presenting them with challenging ideas and encouraging reasoned discussion about them is one of the main things universities are for. What do Bill O’Reilly, the Family Policy Network and other critics of UNC’s reading list believe higher education is about?

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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