As a former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs in the Clinton Administration (1997-2001), and now a member of the Elliott School faculty, I believe the University of North Carolina should be congratulated for its decision to ask its incoming freshman to read Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations – and for standing up to the barrage of criticism that decision has evoked from certain quarters.
During my four years dealing with South Asia, which included responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I learned a great deal about religious intolerance and ignorance – from the Taliban. Ironically the name Taliban delivers from talib, “religious student.” During their five-year reign in Afghanistan, the Taliban declared war on any religious beliefs other than their own. Under the cloak of being the “true believers,” the Taliban massacred thousands of Shiite Muslims. The Shiites, who number several million in Afghanistan, were considered little better than infidels by the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims.
No religion was spared the Taliban offensive against those of faith. At one point Hindus were ordered to wear yellow identification badges to distinguish them from Muslims (Hitler, of course, hoad once done the same with Jews). The Taliban embarked on a campaign to destroy all “un-Islamic idols,” including two giant, centuries old and revered Buddha statues in Bamiyan. Last year at this time two dozen humanitarian relief workers were arrested by the Taliban on charges of spreading Christianity. The Taliban’s war on religion was relentless. To do so in the name of Islam was a gross distortion of the Muslim faith. The Taliban’s actions were examples of religious extremism, pure and simple. In no way did they reflect the true nature of Islam, which respects religious diversity and tolerance.
A further example of religious extremism is being witnessed today in Pakistan, with militan attacks on Christian sites, icnluding schools and hospitals. Again, these actions are a distortion of the Islamic faith. In a recent nationwide address, Pakistan’s President, General Pervez Musharraf, asked: “Where is the tolerance, the magnanimity, the chivalry and the large heartedness that characterized true Muslims?” He has vowed to “break the back” of the groups responsible for the actions.
Unfortunately, there are those in this country who are also contributing to distorting Islam – not through their actions, but their words. One of our nation’s Christian religious leaders has called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” A leading television talk show host has compared UNC’s assigning Understanding the Qur’an to teaching Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Like the Taliban’s war on the religion in Afghanistan and the attack of Islamic militants on Christian sites in Pakistan, these verbal assaults promote religious intolerance and ignorance.
What is needed in today’s dangerous and uncertain world is more – not less – understanding and knowledge of other people’s cultures and religions. The real antidote for religious extremism is knowledge – intellectual inquiry and curiosity. And that is precisely why UNC’s assignment of Approaching the Qur’an deserves support and commendation – not condemnation.
So three cheers for UNC and intellectual inquiry and for all those, including here at GW, who understand and support the assignment of Approaching the Qur’an to the incoming UNC freshman class. May I also recommend that this exploration of the Muslim faith – keep in mind that nearly one of every five people in the world today is muslim – be continued by reading Islam Today: A short introduction to the Muslim World, by my friend and academic colleague, Akbar S. Ahmed. His statement at the beginning of his book explains why I am so enthusiastic about recommending it:
“Only connect in the hope that this book will help to connect different peoples and different faiths and thereby encourage understanding between them.”
Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth is currently a professor at the Elliott School and Director of the M.A. Program in International Affairs. He is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. A version of this article appeared in the Charlotte Observer August 28, 2002.