Emphasis on The Canon glorifies Us vs. Them

“Let them come to eat and buy food and go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons,” said Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, in reference to the numerous Palestinians flooding over the newly opened border into Egypt. The implications of his words are clear: Egyptians have deep sympathy for the humanitarian needs of a blockaded fellow Arab community, but as a head of state, Mubarak must be responsible to the international community and, therefore, cannot condone the smuggling of arms. For him, there is no easy distinction between “us” and “them.”

The difficulties implicit in Mubarak’s position speak to the complexity of the situation. Israel has called on Egypt to secure its border with Gaza, yet Egyptian border guards find themselves mostly outnumbered. Given the rocket fire emerging from Gaza, an Israeli embargo seems necessary, yet in attempts to regulate terrorist activity, citizens are now going hungry. Further complicating things, the Palestinians have elected the notorious terrorist group Hamas — not necessarily because of a shared political opposition to the state of Israel, but because of the group’s humanitarian and charitable involvements in the Palestinian community. As both believe that they are in the right, cries of pro-freedom and pro-democracy can get nods of agreement on either side of the Israel-Gaza divide.

“Us versus them” constructions are deeply embedded in our thinking, our speech and our very education. Michael Pomeranz, in his column this week (“The Western Canon informs our sense of Right” 1/22), demonstrates how insidiously misleading such assumptions can be. In juxtaposing a Western Canon-influenced, democratically run, progressive society against the hordes of non-Western, racist radicals, he draws a strict line in the sand. The Bible, Aristotle, the Reverend King, Israel and “us” on one side, and the Koran, Arabs, terrorists and “them” on the other. Unpacking these assumptions, even briefly, reveals how ephemeral such a line is.

No group can be strictly defined as “good” or “evil.” Israel may be a democracy, but Israelis have practiced their fair share of racism against Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews, as well as Russians, both Jewish and Christian. To characterize Muslims or Arabs as uninfluenced by the Western canon doesn’t just fall short of the truth — it ignores it completely. Many of Pomeranz’ revered works would not even be in our hands were it not for the Muslim scholars who preserved the translations of classic Greek texts. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration not only from the Western Canon and the American experience, but from struggles for equality and human dignity in every hemisphere. Jesus Christ, Dietrich Bonhoffer and Gandhi can all be found in King’s philosophy.

I fancy America a dark knight of sorts, with the right ideals and intent but shortcomings all too often in their execution and application. For instance: When Haitians won their national freedom in 1804, the very same Americans who supported the liberal democracy enshrined in their own constitution reacted with fear at a slave rebellion. Because black Haitians did not fit normative qualifications of those deserving liberal democracy, America wrote their struggle out of history. In 1954, the United States similarly deemed unnecessary a budding constitutional democracy in Iran and subsequently overthrew it. The pattern has repeated itself a countless number of times in Latin America. Even as “leaders of the free world,” we have blood on our hands.

If only the Western Canon could magically create peace, justice and liberty everywhere it was studied! I understand why Pomeranz seeks such an answer; everyone feels the drive to find a single source of unbridled truth and stick with it. But if we humans have excelled in one thing, it is corrupting good ideas. The Koran, used by extremists to justify terrorism, also served as the foundational document for empires like the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, known for their tolerance of religious diversity.

Only open minds can breed tolerance, and closed minds — regardless of philosophical underpinnings — breed intolerance and violence. The real answer can only be found if Israelis study the Koran, Americans study Haitian history and — sure, I’ll say it — Palestinians study the Western Canon. Not because any of them have all the answers for today, but because each contains a different, valuable perspective. Such an education would illuminate the true complexity and subtlety of the varied human journeys that intersect today. The question is not which philosophy is read, but rather how the ideals of each — most of which are unfulfilled — can be used to realize their promises in a way that benefits everyone.

Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs alternate Tuesdays.


  • Anonymous

    amen to the comment about Iran. it never fails to amaze me that Americans have excised from our memory that particular exercise of unchecked imperial power.

  • Anonymous

    Muslim culture today is bereft of value and espouses little but religious fundamentalism and death. Its intellectual past was adopted by the West and influenced the West, but that is no longer the case.

  • Anonymous

    Dariush for the win.

  • Anonymous

    Islam was a splinter Judeo-Christian heresy. So I think Dariush has some chronology issues.

  • Anonymous

    So I think #4 has some knowledge issues. Christian Europe was in the Dark Ages at the height of the Islamic Empire. They didn't even remember how to translate greek to latin, making the vast majority of untranslated greek philosophy inaccessible. When Islam absorbed the majority of the Byzantine Empire and Persia it integrated all that had been discovered in mathematics, philosophy, and science into its scholarship. The very numbers we use (1, 2, 3, 4) were originated in India but given to the West by Arabs. There is no doubt that we must remain critical of oppressive governance in the Muslim world, but don't forget that the Near East is as much a part of the growth of Western Civilization as France or Sweden. When Al-Qaeda strikes its not Islam's fault, it's Al-Qaeda's fault. Maybe if we stopped making false analogies we could tell the difference and actually catch somebody.

  • Anonymous

    The Dark Ages are a myth.

    I would take that time over the Renaissance or Reformation era any day.

    Islam began as an abhorrent over- simplification and militarization of Judeo-Christian monotheism.

  • Anonymous

    Every new religion is considered heretical by old ones: Baha'i by Muslims, Muslims by Christians, Christians by Jews, Jews by pagans. If being called heretical was the criteria for whackness, no religion or philosophy would be of any use.

    Dear #2: You should hope that the approximately 3 million (conservative estimate) Muslims living in America don't espouse "fundamentalism and death." Such absolute statements don't speak truth, but only alienate good people from the very solidarity we need to overcome radicalism.

    Dear #6: Your preference for roads filled with excrement, unlit public spaces, lack of running water and unstable governance puzzles me.


    PS: For the record, much anti-semitism (and hence hatred) in the Arab world is of European descent. Mein Kampf is the book people read to learn about these things. You'll make a better argument against radicals by using their Holy Text, by going back to the tolerance Muhammad wrote about, than by demanding they convert to be good.