Mainstreaming Conspiracy Theories II: Arab Conspiracy Thinking before and after 2000

Conspiracy theory in Arab/Muslim world

It is something of a commonplace that the Arab and Muslim media are full of conspiracy-thinking. Indeed, anyone bold enough to defy Edward Saïd’s prohibition on seeing Arabs as different from Westerners, remarks among the most salient features of Arab culture a propensity to conspiracy theory: Everything is part of a plot; every motive has secret and malevolent motives. The frequency with which even quotidian political events are conceived as the playing out of conspiracies confirms what observation also notices: this is a culture where the political axiom “rule or be ruled” dominates.

Nor is this kind of thinking a recent phenomenon. After WW II, for example, the Nazi conspiracy theories about the Jews, in particular, their foundational conspiracy theory, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, found earnest welcome in the Arab world. It provided the perfect escape from facing the nature of their failure to wipe out any trace of an independent state made by dhimmi. This same need to explain their humiliating failure by blaming the conspiratorial malevolence of others accounts for why one of the major disagreements in the Arab world today is whether the US is a pawn of Israel or vice-versa.

Dan Pipes’ 1998 book, The Hidden Hand, describes the role of conspiracy theory in the Arab world. There he finds a mentality that pervades almost all forms of thought, that contributes fundamentally to both the insolubility of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the economic stagnation of the Arab world. But he also finds that conspiracy theory works primarily as a depressant: the forces are so great, the Arabs such victims, that nothing can be done. Pipes finds this quality among the most damaging:

Imagining conspiracies of malicious, omnipotent adversaries can induce a profound sense of hopelessness. After all, how can an enemy so shrewd, so powerful, and so vast be challenged? At the same time, how can one negotiate or compromise with such an implacable and evil force?

Since 2000, however, things have changed significantly in the Arab world on two major levels. First, the intensity, variety and sophistication of the conspiracy has risen exponentially. The elaborate film and TV series that depict the most horrendous, bloodthirsty Jewish conspiracies to destroy Arabs and Islam have brought public discussion of these themes to a new and vivid prominence. Similarly the variety of conspiratorial narratives, taken over from the Europeans (e.g., blood libels) and given new twists (e.g., Humantashen made with Christian or Muslim boys’ blood), appear in prominent and respected mainstream media. Any glance at the contents of many of the most mainstream of Arab media (from the PATV to Al Jazeera, to al Ahram) reveals an intensity of paranoid hatemongering conspiracism with few parallels in recorded history. Indeed, some future, impartial judge will probably find the early 21st century Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism was even more fevered (if, hopefully, less effective) than Nazi anti-Semitism.

Right after 9-11, 60 Minutes ran a piece on the conspiracy theory that the Mossad was responsible (can’t find this, pretty sure it was CBS). The narrator expressed astonishment not at the existence of such a rumor, but its pervasiveness, even in educated circles, even in non-Arab countries (he was attending a wedding in Pakistan). That TV program should have been a wake-up call to the problem of an entirely different mentality operating in the Arab and Muslim world, where conspiracy is not relegated to the commoners, but publicly embraced by the elites. Even in moderate, pro-Western Muslim circles one finds an almost naïve recourse to CT. In a recent statement by the apparently genuinely moderate Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) [they’re against Sharia law]), their spokesman, Tariq Fatah, expressed relief at the recent pre-emptive arrest of the terrorists in Canada, and, while attacking Muslim extremists, let this comment slip:

It is ironic that Muslim extremists are portraying themselves as anti-imperialist, when in fact Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are nothing more but a creation of the CIA.

Note how the conspiracy theory – with all its profound misunderstandings of how things “work” – allows Mr. Fatah to deny any Islamic dimension to the imperialism of Al-Qaeda.

But in addition to new intensity since 2000, we also find an even more alarming switch from passive to active. Indeed the emergence of global Jihad has accompanied, fed, and ridden on the wave of this intensified conspiracism. One might suggest – I would – that the turn of the millennium has shifted the gears of the Muslim world from passive to active, that the narrative of conspiracy that had previously had so soporific an effect now offered the very rhetoric of incitement to aggression.

This shift to the offensive, already in motion among certain, relatively marginal jihadi figures like Abdullah Azzam and Bin Laden and organizations like Hizbullah, Hamas and al Qaeda, first encountered success in the public arena with the outbreak of the Intifada in the Fall of 2000. The previously marginal found eager ears for conspiracist narratives that incited to action, not to fatalism, militant Islamism and global Jihad. From that point on a new and more aggressive form of Conspiracy theory took on world-wide proportions: from the outbreak of the Intifada, to the convening of the Durban conference, and 9-11. It continues to spread, from the Middle East to Europe, the USA, Far East Asia, etc.

Like most active cataclysmic conspiracy theory (there is a massive conspiracy out there and we can and must fight it), this one has heavy doses of apocalyptic rhetoric, symbolism and, accordingly, absolutist logic. Suicide terrorism first receives its terrifying justification in the framework of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil; and after 2000, receives large majorities of support in opinion polls. In other words, in the Arab world, conspiracy theory has, since 2000, both taken over even more of the public sphere – i.e., taken over the mainstream – and gone active… a highly ominous development.

Next: Conspiracy theory in West

10 Responses to Mainstreaming Conspiracy Theories II: Arab Conspiracy Thinking before and after 2000

  1. Barry D. Wenglin, MD says:

    The Mossad link I heard too on NPR after 9/11. Rare for me to listen, but the interview was with a writer whose name was Goldberg I believe and he said he spent time in Egypt and it was the belief of the intelligentsia there that the Mossaed and the neo- Nazis in America brought who down the WTC. When the writer tried to explain that these two groups could have nothing in common the comment was that was what it so clever a plot.

  2. RL says:

    precisely. no data deters these guys from the paranoid fantasies. it’s part of their projection of their own bad faith on everyone. because with them, nothing is as it seems, how on earth could it be otherwise with anyone else. the corollary to this is that the zionists worked with the nazis to kill millions of jews so that they could get a state of israel. the idea that the jewish leadership would not contemplate such devastation even for the sake of a country does not cross their minds. ditto for the thinking of conspiracists about Bush’s calculus. they live in a world where good faith is impossible. not good allies (take note Mearsheimer and Walt).

  3. Weds. Morning Links

    Summertime! The news, and the blogs, lose some intensity in the summertime. And the less we blog, the more readers we seem to have. Hmmmm.Stumbled into this piece at Chequerboard – discussing income inequality and output inequality. It makes sense. h/t, V

  4. I blogged a bit on a related topic last February in “Pity the Poor Anti-Semite” in which I pointed out that the anti-Semite, like the paranoid with his conspiracy theories, inflates the power of the “Jewish” persecutor to God-like proportions. The outcome is they either attack the God and end up crushed or achieve partial success (as with Hitler & Mogadishu) and in their over-confidence tend to over-reach and end up getting themselves destroyed (invading Russia & 9/11). The Arab Jihadis conflate the Jew and the American (as per the Mullahs, the Great Satan and the Little Satan) and are “victims” of both.
    My post is at http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/2006/02/pity_the_poor_a.html

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  9. SMJ says:

    Well argued but painfully partial. While conspiracy theories may be more prevalent in the Muslim world, they are equally present in the western world including the USA. All one needs to do is do an online research about Jewish and freemasonic conspiracies and an endless list of websites will turn up operated by westerners, predominantly Americans, weaving and substantiating conspiracy theories.

    The very notion of conspiracy theories is western in origin. Jewish and freemasonic conspiracies have their origins in the western world, not Muslim world. Where do you think the conspiracy theories pertaining to UFOs and JFK’s assassination were born and flourished ? These topics are absolutely disconnected from the Muslim world so there is no need for spinning conspiracy theories about them there. So to claim and propose that Muslim societies are predisposed to conspiracy theories is nothing but stereotyping. Conspiracy theories are abound in all parts of the world alike.

    It is however true that in the Muslim world conspiracy theories particularly US, Britain and Jewish related. This is however not without its good reasons as illustrated below.

    One of the most widespread conspiracy theory in the Muslim world is allegedly related to 9/11. The conspiracy theory suggests that it was an inside job, that it was a CIA cum Mossad operation to discredit Muslims and wage a global war against them in the name of terrorism. But is that a Muslim world conspiracy theory or once again the base lies in the west ? Simply do a little search online and you will find heaps of links of articles and opinions casting long shadows of doubt about the official story on what happened on the fateful day of 9th September 2001. This means that Muslim world and its stereotyping as conspiracy theory ridden public is not just misplaced but also shows sheer ignorance in handling the entire issue of conspiracy theory. May be in my next opinion I will shed light on why the conspiracy theories spread in the Muslim and other communities. It’s an interesting tale as well. Till then, please read and educate yourself.

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