Philip Carl Salzman, an MEF writing fellow and professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, was interviewed by Winfield Myers, director of the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch project, in a July 16 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the increasingly ideological and politicized nature of what passes for scholarship in Middle East studies.
Salzman, a specialist in the study of tribal societies in the Middle East whose works include Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, and Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, found himself the target of the cancel culture in November 2020. An open letter circulated by McGill students called for the university to revoke his emeritus title, accusing him of writing articles that were "racist and Islamophobic" and complaining that they didn't "feel safe."
The letter took particular issue with an article by Salzman that set out to explain "the nature of conflict in tribal societies and pre-industrial states" of the Middle East. The article made no mention of either race or Islam – it was his depiction of the region as "a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty" to which his detractors took offense, which is ironic. "I suspect that the families of most of them came to North America because they didn't feel safe in the Middle East."
"What's most important is that they did not challenge my work intellectually. They did not write a reply. They did not question my data. They did not offer alternative data. They did not make a contrary argument." Salzman found it "surprising and a little shocking" that "students who are still beginning and really haven't accomplished anything should feel free to attack someone who's done a lot of work in anthropology."
Salzman recalled that when he began his academic career more than a half century ago, there was "openness ... to different ideas" at McGill:
There was no official ideology of universities at that time. Rather, individuals would put forth their ideas. People who objected to them or had alternative perspectives would engage them in debate and ... present alternative evidence, contrary conclusions. ... People could decide which view they thought was better argued.
But academics began to increasingly adhere to a "Marxist framework in which society was seen, not as a matter of cooperative elements ... but instead as a class system, in which you had an oppressing class and a set of oppressed victims." While the traditional Marxist model of economic class conflict "never got any traction in North America," the oppressor-oppressed categories took other forms, such as whites vs. non-whites, men vs. women, and heterosexuals vs. homosexuals (and later other sexual orientations). Ideological commitments based on "ethnic identities, race identities, sexuality identities" came to trump scholarship and intellectual debate. "The answers are already given," Salzman said. "Empirical research is redundant except to illustrate the truths that your ideology has already set out."
"Empirical research is redundant except to illustrate the truths that your ideology has already set out."
The "correlate for international affairs" was post-colonial theory, which holds that "everything that's wrong in the world is the result of Western imperialism and colonialism." It soon became the "dominant theoretical model." The seminal post-colonial work in Middle East studies, Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism, was "adopted wholesale" by anthropologists.
The students' attempt to silence and "cancel" Salzman ultimately failed when the administration eventually stood by him. But it was sobering for Salzman to see that the professors in the Middle East studies program and anthropology department did not come out to support their colleague.
Salzman observed that most academics these days "lean heavily left" with many of his colleagues having "signed on to the boycott movement against Israel." And they have essentially closed the doors to new hires who think differently. Unless a candidate is "of Middle Eastern derivation" or one with a "leftist ... pro-Palestinian view," then he or she is "unlikely to be hired." The "movement away from the scholarly role to the scholar-activist role" in academia today is therefore likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Salzman cautioned that there is a danger posed to the greater society by "scholar-activists" who have "lost their intellectual integrity," as their students carry these ideas into the fields of media, law, and politics, where they "are in the process of transforming America and Canada according to their Marxist ideology."
"Academia is going down a very dangerous and self-negating path."
"[I] think academia is going down a very dangerous and self-negating path ... not just [in] Middle East studies ... but throughout the social sciences and humanities," Salzman concluded. "I loved being a professor. I loved anthropology [but] anthropology in general has also gone down that path. I think it's a great loss."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.