Philip Carl Salzman: Three Ideas Undermining Canada, America, and the West








Far more dangerous than a handful of terrorist bombers and assassins are insidious ideas  pervasive in universities and the media that undermine and weaken Canada, America, and the West generally. Three of the most destructive of these ideas are that the ills of the world are the result of Western and especially American imperialism, that all cultures are inherently valid and equally valuable, and that any criticism of Islam is either racism or madness or both.


Postcolonial Theory


The idea that everything wrong with any country is the result of Western or American imperialism has been reified into an academic theory called “postcolonialism.” The point is that terrible things were done all around the world by Western colonial powers, and that any current problem can be seen as an effect of Western imperial and colonial acts. This postcolonial theory is widely held by academics in Middle East Studies, anthropology, sociology, political science, and cultural studies, as well as in the humanities.


Postcolonial theory derives in base from Marxist-Leninist theory, which argues that capitalist societies externalize exploitation and class conflict to Third World colonies outside the home country. After the Soviet Union fell, marxists in Western universities felt the need to  obscure their debt to communist theory, and so re-labelled their approach with such terms as “political economy,” “political ecology,” and “postcolonialism.”


Postcolonialism was developed eloquently in Middle East Studies by Edward Said, a Professor of English at Columbia University, a specialist in Jane Austen. Said wrote several books about the Middle East, although he had no training in Middle East Studies or in any social science discipline. One of his books, Orientalism, became, astonishingly, the most influential  book on the Middle East in the last two decades of the 20th century. Orientalism asserts, with alleged examples, that all Western ideas about the Middle East are projections of Western desires and vices, and biassed distortions of imagined evils, projected onto the Middle Eastern “Other” in order to provide justification for attack, invasion, occupation, exploitation, and extermination of defenceless and blameless Middle Easterners. Knowing the Middle East accurately, beyond the Western bias, was impossible, according to Said, because of its diversity.


Edward Said became the great hero American Middle East Studies, feted and honoured by the Middle East Studies Association. His books, but especially Orientalism, were widely taught and references in North American universities. A student once told me that she had been  taught that Said was a “god.” Clay feet, I thought. Said’s motivation to venture into fields beyond his competence was his identification as a Palestinian, although he had grown up in a well-to-do family in Egypt, and had lived his adulthood as a privileged professor in a distinguished American university. Said’s writing was defensive, attempting to reject and refute the negative  image of the Middle East and Middle Easterners.

Said’s publications, and the postcolonialism to which he was a mighty contributor, was and is above all partisan, taking the part of the Middle East and Middle Easterners against the West. Its point is to rehabilitate the reputation and honour of the Middle East. Its strategy to allocate all ill motivation and dastardly deeds to the West, picturing Middle Easterners as hapless and blameless victims of Western imperial and colonial machinations. We cannot find any disinterested and objective research and analysis in postcolonialism; the conclusion is determined a priori: all evil comes from the West. This means that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs is entirely the fault of Israel. Any criticism of Palestinian or Arab politics or actions is disallowed, and attributed to racism or fascism. The brutal barbarism of the Islamic State is attributed to previous actions of America, Israel, and other Western intruders. If South Asians murder their daughters because they fell in love with boys from the wrong caste, it is fault of the British, who, according to postmodernists, invented the caste system, and presumably the ideas of karma and dharma as well. If there are tribal wars in Africa, it is the fault of the British, who, according to postmodernists, invented tribes. If Palestinian men beat up their wives, it is the fault of Israel. No one in the Third World, it appears, is responsible for their actions; it is always the fault of someone else. That such a view takes away the agency and humanity of people in the Third World, and ignores the understandings, beliefs, values, injunctions of their cultures, does not seem to trouble postmodern theorists.


 What happened in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon; why have these countries fallen apart? The postcolonial answer is that it is all the fault of the West. It is the fault of Obama for pulling out of Iraq, or it is the fault of Bush for going into Iraq, or it is the fault of the artificial boundaries imposed by Western powers after the end of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the boundaries established for the new states were a result of negotiation between the Western powers and local powers and peoples. The reality is that any state boundaries would have been artificial, for there had never been modern states in the central Middle East, and there was no ideal way to form new states and separate them from one another. Throughout the region the population was an ancient mix of tribes, sects, religions, and ethnicities. No nation-state with one culture, one language, one land was possible. If every group had been given its own state, there would have had to have been a hundred micro-states, if not more, none of them viable units. Was it really the fault of the West that Sunnis and Shiites had been, off and on, at each others’ throats for 1400 years? Is it really the fault of the West that Iranian speakers and Arabic speakers did not always get along? Or that Muslims thought that Christians and other minorities should obey them? Or that all of these tribes and sects could only live in peace and order when a tyrant imposed it on them?


One of the remarkable things about postcolonialism is that its historical compass reaches back only to the 18th century, the span of Western colonialism. There is no mention of the Roman occupation of ancient Israel (renamed “Palestine” by the Romans), the two hundred years of war with the Jews, and the dispersal of the Jews throughout the Empire. Taken as given and not worthy of comment is the Arab Empire, starting in the 7th century in Arabia, and spread by the sword from India to Iberia, and its colonization, largely intact, with the exception of Iberia and Sicily, to the present day. Nor coming under scrutiny is the Turkish Ottoman Empire, military master of the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Levant, and eastern North Africa for over 700 years, right up to the end of WWI. No postcolonial thinker considers the impact of these empires, and the Imperial Mongol invasions,  on local life in the Middle East. The view is that, somehow, when Europeans came to the Middle East, local society and culture was without history, was pristine and in harmony with human needs.

There has always been a collusion between Western leftist thinkers–socialists and communists–and Third World, postcolonial advocates and apologists. This is not surprising, given their common base in Marxist-Leninism. While always ready and eager to condemn the West, postcolonialists have ignored Russian and Soviet imperialism, and Chinese imperialism. The distinguished marxist anthropologist Eric Wolf, in his acclaimed survey of imperial and colonial impact, Europe and the People Without History, excluded any discussion of the U.S.S.R. and of China.


Postcolonial theory blames American and the West for every ill in the Third World, and exonerates people in the Third World from any responsibility for their own actions and their own conditions. In the postcolonial view, America is not only always in the wrong, it is always evil.




Anthropologists invented cultural relativism. Founding figures of American anthropology, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, the latter in her famous pre-war book Patterns of Culture, argued that you can only understand other peoples’ lives if you consider their cultures and their actions from their own points of view. In Clifford Geertz’s words, “from the native’s point of view,” whether that subject was a native of Maine or of Kyrgyzstan. This form of cultural relativism is a foundational principle of cultural anthropology and ethnographic field research.


In the latter decades of the 20th century, the idea of cultural relativism was expanded to moral or ethnical relativism. As we have our own values, and other people have different ones, no one being on neutral ground, the argument goes, on what basis can we bring judgement of the beliefs or actions of those in another culture? Every judgement is cultural. From this perspective, ethical judgement being culturally-based and thus inapplicable cross-culturally, every value or practice must be seen as good as every other practice. There is no way that we can judge some better or worse. Judgement of other cultures and those in them must be suspended entirely. There are no objective, non-cultural criteria to allow us to decide whether giving a widow a pension is better or worse than burning her alive on the pyre of her dead husband. There is no way to say whether grieving by taking the head of someone from another community is better or worse than lighting candles and praying for the dead. 


At the end of the 20th century, cultural relativism took its final step to epistemological relativism. This position is that all knowledge is culturally based, with no neutral platform for objective assessment. So whatever procedure for knowledge exists in one culture has to be considered equivalent in validity with whatever other procedure exists in another culture. For example, astrology and chicken oracles must be consider equally valid as, say, Western natural science. Witchcraft explanations of events have to be considered equivalent to sociological explanations of events. With epistemological relativism, relativism has been taken to its logical conclusion.

Cultural relativism has been built into public policy through “multiculturalism,” the official policy of Canada and the unofficial policy of many European countries. Multiculturalism is often thought of as the opposite of assimilation; that is, multiculturalism allows immigrants, past, present, and future, to live in their own culture, with their own values, rules, and customs. No longer would individual citizens be the measure; cultural communities, collectivities, would be the operative units of society. Note that the shift from individuals to collectivities is a major transformation of Western political philosophy, with people being judged not on their individual merits, but on the characteristics of their community. However, there is an alternative, assimilationalist  understanding of multiculturalism, one that is held, according to repeated polls, by a large majority of the Canadian population: we welcome people from all cultures to come to Canada and become Canadians.


In the case of multiculturalism, at least, Canadian common sense is on firmer ground than collectivist multiculturalist political philosophers, for multiculturalism is an incoherent concept. A culture is a distinct way of life; different cultures are distinct ways of life. For people to live together in society, they must at least to a degree share a common culture. An obvious but important example is language; people must be able to communicate in a common language. If immigrants from every origin were granted the demand that their language be recognized as an official language, used in education through university, and in all government business, a country would become a sinkhole of babel, and would grind to a halt. In Canada, already struggling with two official languages, Ukrainians, responding to the declaration of multiculturalism as an official policy, demanded that Ukrainian be recognized as an official language to be used in education and government. The government of the day, that had declared multiculturalism within a bilingual state as official policy, refused to institute Ukrainian, and entertained no requests from Germans, Finns, Vietnamese, Italians, Chinese or anyone else that their languages become officially instituted in Canada. The past Conservative Government of Canada advised immigrants that, whatever the laws, customs, and practices of their countries and cultures of origin, they must obey Canadian law. So, to take one more example, the Sharia law that anyone leaving Islam must be considered an apostate and be executed, is inconsistent with Canadian law, where executing an apostate would be considered, not a righteous deed, but murder. Similarly, “honour” killings of family members, regarded as proper in cultures of the Middle East and South Asia, are not acceptable in Canada. Three members of the Shafia family of Montreal were recently convicted of murdering four female family members who they deemed to have been insufficiently modest, or too Canadian.


We are urged by champions of multiculturalism to acknowledge that each immigrant cultural community has a right to pursue its vision, values, customs, and practices. So increasingly public institutions, such as the Toronto schools, are providing space and time for Friday prayers, with girls required to sit in the back, and menstruating girls excluded altogether. Demands in Ontario for Sharia family courts enforced by the state were almost instituted by the provincial government, but for a clamorous public opposition by an informal group of young Muslim women. Should we recognize the right of South Asian families to force marriages to insure that the caste hierarchy is respected? Recently two South Asians in British Columbia were convicted of murder of a junior member of the family, having killed in retaliation for marriage to a man of an “inappropriate” caste. Is forced marriage acceptable as the custom of a cultural community? Are hierarchies of purity, as in the caste system, acceptable in North America?

The exact nature of Canadian and American values is rightly subject to debate. But would it not be fair and accurate to say that Canadian and American values supported individual freedom over community dictate, representative democracy over traditional despotism, individual achievement over hereditary status, equality over hierarchy, laws from legislatures over those in sacred texts, science over traditional knowledge, gender equality over gender hierarchy, respect for sexual diversity over repression of sexual diversity. Some of the values are long standing, while others are more recent. But, as of now, these are Canadian and American values. Will we bow to multiculturalism and accept collectivism, despotism, hereditary status, hierarchy, religious law, anti-scientific traditional knowledge, gender hierarchy, and repression of sexual diversity? If we do, Canada will no longer be Canada, and America will no longer be America.


The most important idea countering relativism and multiculturalism is “human rights.” The position of human rights is an absolute one, arguing that every human being has certain rights by virtue of being a human being, notwithstanding their origin or cultural community. Absolutist human rights is the polar opposite to cultural relativism, especially in its ethical and epistemological versions. The human rights perspective argues that some rights are not relative, that the right not to be enslaved is universal by virtue of our humanity. Its most notable statement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations. The Preamble begins, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, ….” and continues in the final paragraph, “Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,…” ( documents/udhr) America and Canada, in this perspective, should measure its practices by the standards of the UDHR. By the same token, incoming immigrants and their cultural communities should be measured in their practices by the standards of UDHR. Even if we accept the criticism that the derivation of the  Declaration is less Universal than Western Enlightenment, America and Canada are children of the Enlightenment, and that therefore honouring the Declaration is being true to ourselves.




Islamophobia is an idea recently invented and defused by apologists for Islam and Islamism to silence criticism of Islam. The term “phobia” indicates an irrational fear, which is how the users of the term hope than criticism of Islam will be understood. As is well known, criticism of Islam, of Allah, of Mohammed, or of the Qoran is forbidden by Sharia law, violators (or even those unjustly accused) of which are subject in Sharia law to summary execution. Where execution for this offense is rarer, due to its extralegality, such as in America and Canada, defenders of Islam have tried to avoid criticism by picturing themselves as unjust victims of persecution, and to use moral suasion through the concept of Islamophobia to silence criticism.

Islamophobia has become a standard topic in Middle East Studies and Islamic Studies courses, often presented in conferences and publications as a great threat to the well being of Muslims in North America. The official statistics on so-called hate crimes indicate that Jews are by far the main target, many cases perpetrated by Muslims, with Muslims being targets in a small minority of cases.

Some Middle East and Islamic Studies professors appear to believe that it is their job to present Islam in the best possible light. While daily Islamist militias and proto-states fight to conquer land and population in the name of jihad for the caliphate, Professors and media commentators claim that really jihad means inner struggle to submit to God. Our most prominent political leaders, in America and Europe, proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace, even as they contemplate going to war against jihadis. They further state that the Islamic state “has nothing to do with Islam,” although the IS justifies its policies and actions in detail with references to the foundational documents of Islam. The IS has distinguished models to follow: Did not Mohammed spur the military thrusts of the great Arab Muslim Empire, conquering land between India and Iberia for Allah? Does not the Qoran divide the world into the Dar al-Islam, the land of peace, and the Dar al-harb, the land of infidels and war?


From the Qoran to present day Muslim Imams and Ayatollahs, reported word for word in translation on the Middle East Media Institute (MEMRI), a prominent theme is the recommended killing of infidels, and the conquest of the world. This theme is repeated in the charters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and the works of bin Laden and myriad others, and repeated by preachers of Middle Eastern origin and funding in mosques throughout America and Canada. Attempts to monitor, such as were tried in New York by the police, are denounced by politicians, such as the mayor of New York. Fear of being accused of Islamophobia has become a serious inhibition to those charged with public safety, just has fear of being accused of racism has kept  government authorities from dealing with serious breaches of the law, throughout all of Europe, as well as in America and Canada. That is why forced abductions, forced marriages, gang rapes, and honour killings by Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants in Western countries are usually not stopped and often go unpunished by government agencies. North American feminists dare say nothing about abuse of women in the Muslim world, from the Qoran and Sharia law, to daily life in families, lest they be accused of Islamophobia. Western opinion leaders appear to be doing a good job for the Muslim Brotherhood forbidding criticism of Islam.




Powerful contemporary ideas, such as that all the ills in the world are the result of Western Imperialism, that all cultures are equally valid and desirable, and that any criticism of Islam is unjustified and motivated by madness or racism, are undermining American and Canadian values, and paralysing our opinion makers and public officials. Middle East Studies professors, and media commentators, both often of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, are active and effective purveyors of these ideas. But the intellectual rot goes much farther, into social science and humanities “disciplines” that take their inspiration of the political left, and activists, such as feminists and gay rights activists, who refuse to apply their criticisms to Middle Eastern and Islamic countries. Who remains to defend American and Canadian values?