Friedman’s Middle East Rules #3

Mideast rules to live by – Thomas Friedman
International Herald Tribune

Rule 3: If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all ­ they won’t believe it.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the prominence of conspiracy theory in the Arab world as both a function of a) explaining away humiliation and impotence (3 million Israelis didn’t defeat 300 million Arabs, America did it), and b) projecting ill-will. This latter, more fundamental mechanism operates according to the basic rules of prime-divider society: since everyone works according to the political axiom “rule or be ruled,” no one can make a generous offer that he really means. It must be a ruse. Ditto with any “positive-sum” solution. As Arafat said about Camp David: “It was a trap.” And from his zero-sum universe, where any Israeli “win” is a loss for the Arabs, it was indeed a trap.

A remarkably self-critical post by the Jordanian blogger Omar, illustrates one aspect of this tendency to assume conspiratorial motives behind all action. He writes:

Arabs often see themselves as being more aware than others in what matters politics, they like to think of themselves as not being fooled like other nations and that they know why everything happens. In general, they have this thought of that most people around the globe are being fooled either by their governments or by their misleading media tools, while they (Arabs) are not.

What he means here — I think — is that Arabs assume people’s nasty motives: no one is in good faith; anytime someone claims altruistic motives, they are manipulating. Since all conspiracy theories are based on the assumption of (really vicious) malevolence on the “other side,” to see conspiracies everywhere is to assume malevolence in everyone. And as I’ve suggested, that paranoia often represents a projection of one’s own state of mind.

Hence, Westerners have the pitiful tendency to believe people who claim honest intent, and therefore, they are, to the Arab way of thinking, suckers. As a result, they can look down on us, as Omar describes here, for being so credulous. The irony of this self-perception (which, to his credit, Omar criticizes), is that to the Westerner, there is no example of a culture more credulous, more willing to believe the most outlandish nonsense than the Arabs. As Joanne commented:

Darwish has GOT to be kidding. Omar, too.

Arabs weren’t being fooled by their own media. By media that promote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? By media that promote the blood libel, that say that Israel tried to make Arabs infertile with poisoned chewing gum and that Israel is developing a special bomb that targets Arab genes (!)?

Of course, the Arabs always know better. They were always more savvy. Unlike naïve Westerners, they KNOW that the Jews control the US and British governments. They KNOW that the US government caused 9/11. They KNOW that 4,000 Jews stayed home from Twin Towers on 9/11, having been warned away. They KNOW that the Jews control the Western media. They’re so savvy, they KNOW that the Jews want to extend Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates.

Add to that, the predictable accusations in the Muslim media that Israel and the United States are behind the Gaza meltdown. Cui bono? Who benefits? If the meltdown hurts the Palestinians and benefits the Americans and Israelis, they must have done it:

The political [policy] of the conspirators in Washington and Tel-Aviv, [aimed at] spreading destruction and undermining the unity of the Arab societies in these three countries, as well as in other [countries] that they are able to influence with the help of their agents within them – is termed ‘creative chaos’…
Al-Thawra (Syria), June 18, 2007

Paradoxically, believing that everything stems from base motives (one definition of a cynic), actually makes people more susceptible to manipulation, more likely to believe nonsense as long as it’s phrased in ways that make sense. Hence Friedman’s deft formulation of the problem.

And, if I can reflect for a moment on the nature of the Israeli soul, we come to the great tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Israelis, even the most hard-bitten and bitter, are almost to a person desirous of a peaceful solution that benefits everyone. The sabra (cactus pear), hard and prickly on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside, is not the Israeli term for a native born by accident. That’s why the Israeli peace camp is so large, varied, and Pavlovian in its desire to believe Palestinian good will in the hopes that things will go better, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And yet, in the most colossal illustration of the Moebius Strip of cognitive egocentrism, nothing the Israelis do can penetrate the hermetically sealed mistrust of the shrewd Arabs. So rather than economic cooperation — which should solve terrorism, no? — the Arabs see chewing gum that causes sterility and shampoo that makes you bald.

And rather than outsiders who can intervene in this tragic cognitive deadlock that threatens mutual destruction, the “progressives” come in to show their “solidarity,” armed with their Post-colonial paradigm, and confirm every fevered detail of Arab paranoia.

2 Responses to Friedman’s Middle East Rules #3

  1. n00man says:

    In the window of an ‘anarchist bookstore’, I recently saw a DVD that purported to prove how MI5 was behind 7/7. Let’s apply cui bono conspiratorial reasoning– the UK didn’t take the opportunity to ratchet up police powers, and nobody at that time could have really thought such an event would boost British support for the Iraq War.

    I think conspiracy theories metastatize by analogy, not by cui bono arguments, which are called up only after to euhemerize, as it were, a basically mythical mode of reasoning. As Voltaire said, “crush infamy.”

  2. Richard Landes says:

    well, it did give muslims a bad name, even if it didn’t lead to new security measures. as long as muslims suffer from something, then it must have been planned by their enemies. really quite remarkable, that: muslims never behave in irrational, self-destructive ways.

    but take the Columbia space-ship disaster. that wasn’t even blamed on Muslims and there were conspiracy theories going up within hours.

    so i think you’re right. even cui bono is a cover for a lust for what Michael Barkun calls “proscribed knowledge.” if it offends, it must be true (as long as it doesn’t offend people who will kneecap you).

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