Thursday, April 28, 2005

Do Arabs have a "conspiracy theory" complex?

"Just a few minutes' chat with a sophisticated Middle Easterner makes it clear how much he interprets great public issues through the prism of conspiracy theories. Whereas Westerners see a Syrian government long in conflict with Israel, he perceives Damascus as having surreptitiously worked hand in glove with the Jewish state since the 1960s. In his view, the Western powers built up Saddam Hussein, connived with him to put on Desert Storm, and provided him with the weapons to stay in powers after his defeat. Ruhollah Khomeiny may have appeared vitriolically anti-Western, but Middle Eastern interlocutors will claim this ayatollah served his British (or American) masters up to his death. And so forth." Daniel Pipes, The Hidden Hand, Middle East Fears of Conspiracy.

I don't like Daniel Pipes. I find him too biased against Islam (he seldom mentions anything positive about Islam or muslims). Nevertheless, I think the guy has a point: arabs are infected with what I would dare to call the "conspiracy theory complex". From the most illiterate to the most educated, from the secular to the religiously enclined thinkers, virtually each and everyone in the arab world will look for hidden explanations to our countries' successive failures, and ignore the glaringly clear and simple root causes of our backwardness. I was discussing the 9/11 attacks recently with an arab friend from the middle-east, who was still doubting that 9/11 has been perpetrated by al-Qaeda. His argument was that arabs are not so sophisticated as to carry out such a momentous operation, which required a great deal of coordination and attention to details, qualities that Arabs in general cruelly lack.

Karim: Yes, but a terrorism "expert" from the Arab world, Anis Nakkash (a lebanese who masterminded attacks himself in the 80's and who lives in hiding somewhere in the Middle East), when asked by al-Hayat about the attacks, said they were not highly technical given the relatively lax security measures in US airports prior to 9/11, and that they didn't require highly trained people. Besides, bin Laden himself endorsed the attacks and praised the attackers in his video-recordings broadcast on al-Jazeera!

Friend: Well, this doesn't mean at all that he actually did it! See, I agree with you that he probably would have done it if he could. The fact that he praised these poor middle east passengers who happened to by on these airplanes is just an attempt from him to get credit for these attacks and thus bolster his prestige in the arab world! You know how the arabs think! For them, what matters above all are heroic endeavors, of which 9/11 (to him) is a great example.

Karim: So, who do you think has dunit?

Friend: Well, you know, the intelligence agencies of the west are very good.

Karim: Sure, I am aware of that. But, so far, I haven't heard of any agency's operatives who commit suicide in order to carry out a given mission. Did anyone escape from one of these airplanes by parachute by any chance?

Friend: No, that's not what I meant. There are people who say that the airplane computers were either programmed or accessed remotely during flight in such a way as to put the airplanes in a head-on trajectory toward the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

And there we go again... you see the picture? This was a very well educated person. No wonder that the average arab on the streets of Casablanca or Cairo will give credit to even wilder imaginations. Unfortunately, very few in the arab world will speak up and debunk all these conspiracy theories. So, I was pleased when yesterday I read an article in al-Hayat whose author had the courage to address this sickness of the arab mind. Any other articles or contributions on this topic will be most welcome!


Jallal said...

Thanks Karim for you piece on conspiracy theory. You perfectly summarized how Muslim-Arabs, for some time now, have been reacting to on-going events in the world, especially those closely tied to their concerns. As you and the Hayat’s article have shown, conspiracy theory is widespread among not only mainstream but all class hierarchies of the Arab world. Discussing it is, therefore, of paramount importance. I will adventure, in an upcoming post to try to talk about the roots of conspiracy theory in the Arab world, as I see them.



Jallal said...

Conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theory, it is true, is widespread in the Arab-muslim world. It has reached unprecedented levels. However, I think the views of Arabs-Muslims are polarized between two extremes: one extreme associated with a minority that is highly critical of the other extreme associated with the majority and strongly believing in conspiracy theory. Discussing only about the majority is not something I want to dwell on since this article and certainly many others have already addressed it in an extensive way. Rather, I think, to seriously assess the actual level of conspiracy theory belief in the Arab world, we need to seek the answer to these three questions:
1. Does the concept of conspiracy theory exist?
2. What is the level of conspiracy theory belief in, say, the west?
3. How does the level of conspiracy theory belief in the Arab world compare to 1) and 2)

The reason for this classification is twofold.
a) Comparing 2) or 3) would allow us to figure out to which extent Muslims-Arabs believe in conspiracy theory more than westerners for instance, which is a more interesting figure than looking to absolute numbers.
b) Adopting such a classification may help us in targeting the actual reasons behind the spreading of conspiracy theory in our societies.
Now, I will quickly go through the three points mentioned above:
1. Conspiracy theory is not always a synonym of paranoia or schizophrenia. Sometimes, there is conspiracy theory and we have many accounts revealing that some conspiracy theory had taken place for whatever reason. The problem, however, lies in the fact that this “actual” conspiracy theory is only some 5 to 10% of conspiracy theories that are believed in, especially in the Arab-Muslim world.
2. Here again, westerners also believe in conspiracy theory. A couple of years ago, a poll in Germany drew my attention. It revealed that 30% of Germans believed that a conspiracy theory was behind 9-11. This is a quite surprising number. I still think the poll over-estimated this percentage but the point is, there are many westerners that believe in conspiracy theory.
3. Here we are at the interesting question: What is the difference between the level of believing in conspiracy theory in the Arab-Muslim world and that in the west? This is the critical number to us and I do think the difference is large. There are many reasons explaining this gap:
i. the current state of the Arab-muslim world and the victimization that goes with it. This is a subject of its own.
ii. the way Arab-Muslims have been educated in schools. Our education system has always been apologetic of our history, systematically emphasizing glorious events or conquests, overlooking many dark sides of it, and above all, failing to train the student to develop critical thinking. Therefore, many Arab Muslims do not even want to recognize that some Muslims have perpetrated some evil acts for they have never been thought that this might be possible…
iii. On of the main reasons also is the lack of confidence. Because of i) and because we often lack knowledge and we have a shallow understanding of our society/religion/history, we often are not prepared to recognize that evil can be ours for in this case we fear that we suffer an identity crisis.

These are only some of the main reasons behind conspiracy theory in the Arab-muslim world, which, as the author showed, has touched virtually all the classes of our society. As I said in the beginning, it is important to assess what is intrinsically “Arab-Muslim” and what should be considered as in line with the general feeling throughout the world. By intrinsic, I do not mean something related to the Arab mind or whatsoever, but something that is currently only related to Arabs-Muslims giving their crisis. The gap, I agree, is very large and we should change the way we look at things in order to reduce it and to move ahead. Otherwise, immobilism in our societies will still have a bright future.

rami cremesti said...

Anis Nakkash was on Aljazeera the other night and he spewed tons of anti-Israeli venom. He basically defended the Iranian president's call for the extermination of Israel and backed up his defense with a Koranic verse that predicts the destruction of the Jewish State.

The Al-Jazeera moderator sided with him and he even backed Najadi by stating the one billion muslims in the world agree with him. He asserted that all Arab woes stem from Israel.

The average West-hating Arab mind is a sick mind, sick with conspiracy theories. I think it stems from the fact that the Arab character is very Proud and the Old Testament attests to that (it talks about the people of Moab as being very proud).

So these conspiracy theories I think stem in part from a wounded pride the result of the Arab defeats on the hands of the Israelis.

My response to Mr. Nakkash is that the Bible did predict the destruction of Israel but it also promises that Israel will be established on Zion never to be destroyed again.

Finally, I would like to call all sides to let go of anger and hate of the other because this is the Original Sin. The Torah teaches kindness to the strangers that inhabit Israeli land. Mohammad the Prophet of Islam was the epitome of mercy (even though many of his teachines are misinterprested in a violent way). and Jesus taught loving one's enemy...

Best regards,

Rami Cremesti

founder AMALID