The Weaponization of Western Values

A CBC Angus-Reid “Canadian Values” poll conducted in 2016 found that the majority of Canadians wished minorities would do more to “fit in” with the country’s values. This is a nation that is heralded internationally as the progressive sanctuary for immigrants and refugees. The poll did not specify what these values were, yet 68% of Canadians, and 83% of white Canadians, believed minorities were not doing enough to fit in with the nation’s values. A similar poll conducted in Britain revealed that the majority of Britons believed Islam was incompatible with Western values. The idea that Western values are under threat remains an ongoing topic in Western politics, especially after the terror attacks in Manchester and London.

What are "Western values"? What do they represent?

What are “Western values”?
What do they represent?

These reports are not surprising, considering how in recent elections in the West, right-leaning political parties have had one campaign promise in common: to preserve and protect “Western Values” from immigrants and foreigners. This was an especially contentious topic in the recent Canadian federal election. During his time in office, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative party established a tip line for reporting “barbaric cultural practices against women and girls.” Harper introduced this tip line, which was ostensibly intended to combat already illegal practices of child marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM). This was done at a time where Amnesty International and the United Nations were concerned by the inaction on the alarming rate of missing and murdered indigenous women. Similarly, during her campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, Kellie Leitch included the establishment of a “Canadian value test” for incoming immigrants as a campaign promise, although she never specifically defined those values. This is almost identical to the tactics used by Donald Trump’s campaign and their “extreme vetting process.” Though unlike the vagueness of Leitch’s promises, Trump clearly demonstrated the racial groups his team were and still are targeting.

As leaders and citizens alike struggle to articulate what constitutes “Canadian values,” it is unclear exactly what they feel needs protecting. While the criminal acts that the Harper’s Barbaric Cultural Practices means to combat include child marriages, it is factually incorrect that the crimes listed are exclusive to immigrants. In 2016 in the province of British Columbia, a white Canadian polygamist was charged with taking child brides to the United States to marry them, and statistically, the rates of both FGM and similar crimes associated with minorities are very low. But as demonstrated by the CBC Angus-Reid poll, despite the low crime rate, white Canadians do still feel as though their values are in danger by an enemy. It is clear who this enemy is, yet they don’t know what these values that supposedly need protecting actually are.

The increased political focus on the vague standard of ‘national values’ is a formulated political strategy that weaponizes the idea of Western ideals to establish an opposing force. By posing these as a set of values, they provide something worth protecting from the common enemy. This is done with the aim to ignite nationalistic fury and fragment communities, justifying policies like stricter immigration policies. The intentionally unifying nature of these values is also a rationalization for Western alliances. This psycho-political weapon is not a new tactic, and is used by politicians and leaders across the political spectrum to convince citizens of the superiority of these Western ideals that are supposedly under threat. This phenomenon can be traced to the beginning of the Cold War, and as the perceived enemy shifts with the fall of the Soviet Union, towards the threat of Islam and Islamic terrorism.  

Origins of Western Values: Cold War

The political use of “Western values” roughly began in the Cold War, where politicians in North America and Europe were scrambling to find the most effective psycho-political methods to position the West as different and superior compared to the Communist East. They wished to combat Communist ideology both in their own nations as well as those in the Soviet bloc. Psychologists and politicians alike believed that the individualistic culture of the West, its lack of ideology uniting goal made it no match to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and collectivist nature of Communism. Another concern in the struggle to formulate Western values was the difficulty of presenting anti-Communism as a positive rather than negative goal.

Eisenhower’s special adviser on psychological warfare stressed the difficulty to project this to the people in the Soviet bloc. The reality was, the capitalist West had no set “goal” or cultural value that brought people together. To combat this, politicians determined they needed to define and promote the idea of Western values, which had to oppose the values of Communist nations. Politicians, journalists and even intelligence groups then began to implement and spread the idea of democratic freedoms as the basis for Western values, leading to the circulation of these values, specifically the personal freedoms of the West, as being under attack by the spread of Communism. These tactics also instituted a need for Western alliances, increasing public support for the formation of alliances like NATO. Unsurprisingly, these tactics did not die along with the Soviet Union.

Islam, the West’s New Enemy  

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new ideological threat to Euro-American ideals was perceived, and the political use of Western values persisted. These values always need an enemy to justify Western systems of power and continue to instill a common ground for citizens to feel attached to. Released in 1993, Samuel P. Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations paved the way for the idea that Islamic values clash with Western values. This began a contentious debate among political scholars, and prompted think-pieces like this to prove the incompatibility of Islam with Western values.

While Western values had become associated with liberal ideals of human rights and equality, Islamic values became fabricated as the opposition to those ideals. The diversity in culture and values of the Islamic world were eradicated and replaced with a homogeneous set of values, usually signified with the buzzword “Sharia.” These set of values were supposedly inherently incompatible with that of the West, supporting the fear-mongering tactics of leaders like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

As the rights of women and minorities became institutionalized in Western governments, they became a part of Western values. Although this is a positive step, it meant that now for leaders to justify policies like anti-immigration, they needed to appeal to the progressive population by co-opting these legal strides and make them seem as though they are under threat. Marine Le-Pen rarely discusses gender issues in France, unless it served her interest of vilifying Islam. During France’s birkini debate, she published a post on International women’s day, stating that “With Me, French Women Will Stay Free.”

Similarly, as more and more queer rights have been implemented in the West’s legal codes, homonationalism has emerged. Homonationalism refers to the phenomenon of the growing proximity between LGBTQ rights and the goals of nationalism. Right-wing politicians use homonationalism to pursue their own agenda, whether they personally support queer rights or not, as they co-opt LGBTQ rights to justify their anti-immigration policies and sentiments. Framing queer rights as a fundamental Western value that is under threat by Muslim immigrants is a fear-mongering tactic that is  not only used to justify stricter immigration policies, but also generates xenophobic attitudes. With the rise of Islamophobic violence in the West, the effect of these tactics are clear: Western values are a weapon that target those who are most vulnerable in our world who are trying to seek better lives. Defining Islamic values as ones that directly conflict with Western ones establishes a sense of superiority, positing Islamic values as a threat to the West.  

The psycho-political impact of positing Western values in direct opposition to what was at first Communism and then became Islam is clear. This undefined set of values gives a once fragmented West with unifying ideals that need protecting. This common interest set the basis for the justification and continuation of Western alliances like NATO, which has continued in light of Trump’s indifference to the alliance. It’s effectiveness as a psycho-political tool can be demonstrated by the political races involving right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, and the fear-turned-violence it has generated against Muslim communities. It is a weapon that brings people from across oceans together, and used against a concocted common enemy.

Mahtab Laghaei

Mahtab Laghaei

Policy Intern at InPRA
Mahtab Laghaei is an undergraduate arts student at the University of British Columbia. She was born in Tehran and raised in Vancouver, where she is the editor in chief of a local arts and culture magazine. Her experiences living in the diaspora has inspired her activism and political endeavours which she explores through writing for different publications and volunteering with local organizations.
Mahtab Laghaei

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