Early in Recalling the Caliphate, Sayyid recounts an attempt by then-Iranian president Khatami to bridge the gap between his country and the United States by appealing to Alexis de Tocqueville. As an instructor at a school in the Great Books tradition, I found this story to be illustrative of the limitations of the Great Books approach insofar as it showed how empty the claim to universal values is in practice. In principle, custodians of a canon of universally applicable texts should be thrilled when someone from another cultural tradition finds a canonical text appealing. In reality, though, Khatami’s attempt to enter into the Great Conversation was met with outrage and derision.
This reaction is of course conceptually incoherent, and that’s because claims to universality for the “Western canon” — indeed, even the very existence of something like the “Western canon,” which Sayyid characterizes as a “hegemonic project” and a “contingent stitch-up” (pg. 55) — are not conceptual claims, but political ones. This means that they are conditioned by the friend-enemy relationship that, for Sayyid, runs above all between the West and the non-West in the contemporary world. Insofar as he was an enemy claiming possession over Western property, therefore, “Khatami had to commit an act of violence that was prerequisite to his attempt at dialogue” (pg. 28), and the reaction he received was every bit as violent.