Misusing Knowledge in a Time of Terror
by Manuel L. Quezon III
The ancients believed that Christians destroyed the great library of Alexandria. Christians to this day heap calumny on the conqueror of Egypt who, during the invasion in the 7th century, is claimed to have said of the books in the library, “they will either contradict the Qur’an, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” However, some scholars assert that the Emperor Theodosius decreed the destruction of pagan temples in Alexandria in 391, and that Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria zealously complied with the decree, demolishing the Mithreum, the Serapeum, and the Mouseion (ancestor of today’s museums), of which the Serapeum certainly contained a portion of the famed library. Today, of course, the library has been refounded as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a hugely ambitious (and praiseworthy) project of the Egyptian government.
Islamic libraries suffered at the hands of the Mongols, particularly Hulagu Khan’s destruction of Baghdad in 1258 which included the burning and casting into the Tigris River of millions upon millions of books. In 1499, the Archbishop of Toledo presided over the burning of Arabic texts confiscated during the Christian reconquest of Spain; crusaders destroyed three million books contained in the library of Tripolis, in Syria. Christian libraries of course, have suffered as well; the Germans were condemned for destroying the great library in Louvaine, Belgium, in 1914 and again heavily damaging it in 1940. And of course, the Nazis had a fetish for book burnings. In China, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of ancient texts.
No nation, culture, or people, involved in one way or another in conflict, can escape condemnation for some sort of act against knowledge, including the destruction of libraries and books. Sacred texts, of course, easily spark controversy, either through their abuse at the hands of enemies of all, or a particular, religion, or when used as a means for control by forces pushing for religious rule. If the American-led War on Terror must inevitably result in the Qu’ran being used as a means for subduing prisoners (by threatening them with its desecration), there too, exists a larger danger for all peoples. Books, these days, remain dangerous things.
There are cases where a book ruffles the feathers of the powers that be, such as when an anonymous American writer published “Imperial Hubris,” a denunciation of existing American policy in fighting terrorism, and was found out and shall we say, encouraged to resign. One can argue that the author had it coming. But there are other instances where the more passive act of reading, and not writing, begins to earn the attention and interest of the authorities. By authorities I mean not only government officials, but also preachers, teachers, and activists. If it is considered dangerous, for example, for the American government to poke into the borrowing habits of those who check out books from public libraries, isn’t it just as dangerous for groups to insist that specific books be removed from the shelves?
In Westchester, Pennsylvania, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” was taken off the reading list for 7th graders in 1994 because the book had “racially charged” language; in 1983, four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee found the book “sexually offensive” and wanted it forbidden. Grimm’s fairy tales were restricted to sixth through eighth grade classrooms at the Kyrene, Arizona, elementary schools in 1994 due to its excessive violence, negative portrayals of female characters, and anti-Semitic references. The list goes on and on, and the American Library Association compiles a list of such challenged books, ranging from Ethiopia banning Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1978 to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, against Salman Rushdie, “the author of the Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, Prophet, and the Qur’an, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, have been sentenced to death.” Catholic cardinals have grumbled about Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code.”
One might argue that totalitarian and even democratic governments that attempt to forbid specific books, or look into the reading habits of people in order to detect behavior dangerous to national security, is a profound threat to freedom. It is, but even more dangerous, and insidious, I think, are attempts to challenge and ban books using the established laws and regulations of societies that claim to be free. The American Library Association defines a challenge “as an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group” while a ban, or banning, “is the removal of those materials.
Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”
Last year, books were challenged 547 times in the United States, which enjoys the vigilance, at least, of organizations that defend the right to read. Where are the groups that will defend that right, elsewhere?