How to decry persecution by practicing it.

How to decry persecution by practicing it.

How to decry persecution by practicing it.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 9 2002 6:40 PM

Save the Bigots

How to decry persecution by practicing it.

This morning in Pakistan, three women were killed as they left a Christian church, apparently the latest victims in a spree of anti-Christian terrorism. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, legislators and conservative activists are battling what they regard as another assault on Christianity: The University of North Carolina is requiring incoming students to read a book about Islam.

If you're a soft-headed liberal, you may have trouble seeing that it's oppressive to be asked to read a book about somebody else's religion. You may suffer from the outdated notion that religious persecution more aptly describes what's going on in Pakistan than what's going on in North Carolina. What you don't understand is that in the United States, the defense of liberty has become sophisticated. So sophisticated, in fact, that it has become its opposite. Here, nobody openly persecutes anybody anymore. If I want to persecute you, I don't say I'm persecuting you. I say you're persecuting me.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


The assignment to UNC students asks them to read parts of Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations, translated by Michael Sells. In a set of study questions, the students are asked, among other things, what themes are conveyed by various Quran excerpts; whether the virtues and vices emphasized in the excerpts are skewed or incomplete; what "problems or benefits" arise from reading and discussing a text in a foreign religious tradition; and what would happen if more Americans read the book.

For additional perspectives, the students are offered a list of 19 optional readings. They are asked to write an essay on any of four questions, the easiest of which invites them to pick a Quran excerpt that interests them and "respond to it using your own ideas and material from the book." Finally, they are instructed to bring their essays to a discussion session with other students. Those who don't want to read the book are asked instead to write an essay "on why they chose not to read the book."

A soft-headed liberal might see this multifaceted, open-ended, option-rich assignment as a paradigm of free and critical thinking. But the Family Policy Network and North Carolina legislators know better. The FPN's legal arm has filed a lawsuit to scrap the UNC assignment, and on Wednesday, the budget committee of the North Carolina House of Representatives voted 64-10 to prevent UNC from using state funds on it. That's a majority of the North Carolina House.

The legislators and the FPN make three points. First, the FPN accuses the university of "forcing … students to study Islam against their will." Never mind the university's stipulation that students who don't want to read the book can explain why. "Forcing college freshmen to defend deeply-held religious beliefs in their first university classroom experience," according to FPN President Joe Glover, amounts to "religious bigotry enforced with intimidation."


Second, they say that by assigning a Muslim text, UNC "promotes" Islam, "discriminates" against other faiths, and violates the constitutional requirement of "neutrality" toward religion. Glover isn't anti-Muslim; he says he's just trying to stop UNC from pushing "a one-sided pro-Islamic reading requirement" in "an obvious attempt to put a positive face on what many people believe to be a very evil religion." And what exactly makes the assigned book unduly pro-Islamic? According to Glover, the book's flaw is that it "leaves out any mention of other passages of the Koran in which Muslim terrorists find justification for killing non-Muslims."

Third, lawmakers say they've heard from many people who find UNC's selection of the book offensive. These legislators don't say how many of these people had read the book. Some lawmakers claim that the selection insults victims of the Sept. 11 attacks; others argue that it would divide the public just when we need to pull together. One representative says it was "insensitive … to allow students to read about our attackers."

What do these complaints add up to? Let's see: The university is coercing students by requiring them to write about why they don't want to write about any of the open-ended questions the university asked them to write about. The assigned reading (never mind the 19 optional readings) is unconstitutionally pro-Muslim because it's insufficiently anti-Muslim. And it's insensitive not just to require such reading, but to allow it.

This is what "intimidation," "discrimination," and "sensitivity" have come to. Words that once accurately described cross burnings, housing covenants, and slurs are now being used to describe the superficial emotional wounds that come from living and debating in a free society. This dilution is being perpetrated not just by the left but by the right as well.

Conservatives often complain that many leftists practice censorship in the name of defeating it. That's true. But the hypocrisy goes both ways. Religious bigotry isn't gone. It just goes by the name of religious freedom.