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