When going to battle, "know yourself and know your enemy," advises the Chinese Art of War. Some say that the University of North Carolina had the legal right to assign my book on the early passages of the Qur'an, but erred by making such a controversial choice. The controversy, however, has touched a nerve and revealed that this society is in dangerous disagreement about who our enemy really is.

Television personality Bill O'Reilly called the assignment "tripe" and compared it to assigning Hitler's Mein Kampf in World War II. To that I say: "Don't shoot the messenger." O'Reilly articulates the views of millions. I disagree with O'Reilly's analogy, but not for the reasons many think.

Contrary to what many have said, my book does not claim that Islam or any other religion is "a religion of peace." We need to get beyond such vacuous arguments. Religions are as peaceful or violent depending on who is interpreting them and how they act. Violent adherents to Islam attacked the United States and set up the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Violent adherents to Christianity massacred thousands of unarmed Muslim civilians in Bosnia and planted triumph crosses over the looted and dynamited remains of their mosques and communities. Violent adherents to Hinduism tortured, raped, and burned alive thousands of defenseless Muslim civilians last spring in the Gujarat province of India.

To paraphrase the Bible: each religion sees the mote in the eye of the other, while failing to see the plank in its own eye. After the cold-war, religious fundamentalisms have replaced the U.S.-Soviet rivalry as channels for violent conflict. We cannot afford a world of religious leaders attacking other traditions to advance their claims to religious superiority.

Imagine that an U.S. university had assigned "Approaching Japanese Buddhism" in 1941. It would have been denounced for presenting the "religion of the enemy," a religion that was being used to indoctrinate young men in militant fanaticism. The subsequent controversy would have generated a public debate about which Japanese were in fact the enemy. But the issue was swept under the rug and Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps, without serious debate. Lack of consensus about the enemy now could lead to even more disastrous results, here and abroad.

The spectacle of opinion-makers such as columnist Bill Buckley and Wall Street Editorial Board chairman William Bentley misrepresenting a book they haven't read teaches us something about our own society. Egyptian students and politicians attacked universities over books they also had not even read. Many say Western civilization is superior because it encourages debate. Yet opinion-makers in the United States pontificate on a book they know nothing about and North Carolina legislators threaten budgetary revenge against one of the finest educational institutions in this country. Societies that make their universities slaves to the whims of religious zealots or demagogic politicians lose their intellectual vitality and damage their ability to act effectively in the world.

I won't review here the disagreeements with the Family Policy Network that I expressed in an op-ed article I wrote earlier this month. Beyond that: yes, UNC could have avoided controversy and assigned a book on terrorism or Islamic militants, such as Ahmad Rashid's superb, prophetic study of the Taliban published in 2000. I hope another college assigned it, and all Americans should read it. But to limit all discussions of Islam to discussions of terrorism is to impose the very same monolithic association that Bin Laden and the attackers wanted to provoke.

My book chooses passages with the same criteria that Biblical passages have been chosen for readings in required readings in courses on humanities--not to make judgments about the Bible being peaceful or not peaceful, but to introduce theological ideas and stories that are key to both the religion and the civilization of those who read them. It also explains how the Qur'an functions as a sacred text in Islamic society. Such knowledge won't hurt anybody and implies no generalized judgments about Islam.

By inadvertently sparking an urgently needed public discussion and refusing to back down, UNC fulfilled one of the most essential roles of a great university.

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