Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini understood the astonishing power that conspiracy theories have over the minds of Muslims. After Islamic fundamentalists seized and occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, Khomeini declared that America and its “corrupt colony, Israel,” were really pulling the strings behind the takeover of the mosque. There followed an upsurge of violent anti-Americanism in Libya, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan; in Islamabad a mob burned down the U.S. embassy.1
The destructive influence of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, though, is graver than the concrete damage caused by rampaging mobs. Suffusing the cultural atmosphere of the Arab–Islamic world, such theories project the fiction that Muslims, their values, and their culture are beleaguered. By doing so, these theories both express and foment hostility toward the supposed enemies of Islam: America, Israel, and the West in general. Conspiracy theories instill and sustain in the public mind rationalizations for waging war in defense of Islam and for rejecting the values of the West (ideals such as political and economic freedom thus face an arduous struggle to take root in the Middle East).
Perhaps the most notorious and prevalent anti-Muslim conspiracy theory is The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Originating in Russia in the early 1900s, this tract purports to reveal the nefarious secret plans of a Jewish cabal to undermine the health, family life, and morality of non-Jews. These elders allegedly seek a monopoly on international finance and thereby to achieve world domination. The Protocols was exposed as a fiction in the West in the early 1920s—at roughly the time that Arabic translations of it began appearing in the Middle East. That it has long been discredited in the West has done nothing to diminish the appeal of The Protocols to Muslims.2
Instead, the book has become a fixture of the culture's intellectual life. It has been reissued umpteen times in Arabic, and there have been more translations and editions of it in Arabic than in any other language. Gamal Abdel Nasser, while he was president of Egypt, gave away copies to foreign journalists; Saudi Arabia's government likewise distributed copies to visitors and at Saudi Arabian embassies; and Khomeini's regime brought the book to prominence in Iran. The charter of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group, explicitly refers to The Protocols and recycles its mythic claims. The book has been included in the curriculum of schools in Jordan, and for a period in the 1970s it became a nonfiction best seller in Lebanon.3 Major television adaptations of it have appeared in Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan (a recent Iranian television program posturing as a documentary claimed to prove how, in accordance with The Protocols, Jews control Hollywood and use movies to advance a pro-Zionist agenda).4
And the fabrication of new conspiracy theories, conveying the same general theme expressed in The Protocols, continues apace: The genocide in Sudan; the bombings on the London underground; and the attacks of September 11, 2001, were supposedly orchestrated by America (or Israel or the Elders of Zion) to defame, undermine, and injure Muslims.
While political and intellectual leaders in the Arab–Islamic world comprehend the power of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, in the West this malignant phenomenon remains little understood. Why do patently false stories, harping on supposedly omnipresent threats, proliferate among Muslims? The answer reveals a profound—and ominous—insight into the Arab–Islamic mind.
In The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy, Daniel Pipes, a Middle East scholar and columnist, sheds light on a broad range of conspiracy theories and their purveyors. The book, published a decade ago, is valuable as a field guide, because it points to evidence that is important for understanding why conspiracy theories flourish in the Middle East. Pipes presents several case studies and goes on to catalogue the general features of conspiracy theories and their promulgators. His explanation for the abundance of conspiracy theories is illuminating; his account, however, does not pierce deep enough.
With the help of Pipes's findings, we can uncover the fundamental cause by exploring the character of the conspiracist mentality, its musings, and motivations.
A clue to that cause is the conspiracist's brazen contempt for facts. The conspiracist's tales precede—and typically contradict—facts. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion claims to reveal a plot based on little more than racist hostility and innuendo (such as the prominence of Jews in finance). The obscene conjectures about the 9/11 attacks arbitrarily concoct a bizarre stew of falsehoods (such as the notion that the Bush administration staged the attacks to justify a war). From the scores of alleged plots that Pipes discusses, one can discern a recurring theme that unites them. The theories convey a specific belief to which the conspiracist is committed: that forces are working to impoverish, corrupt, subjugate, and destroy the Muslim world.
The conspiracist's emotional commitment to this belief renders evidence and logic to the contrary irrelevant. Scraps of pseudo-evidence—if offered at all—are afterthoughts invoked for the sake of convincing others. Inconvenient facts are dismissed. As Pipes observes:
Focusing on what fits his thesis, the conspiracy theorist ignores everything else. A ferocious war took place in Afghanistan that lasted a decade and pitted the U.S.-backed mujahidin forces against the Soviets and their allies. The Khomeini regime somehow disregarded this major conflict on its border and insisted on U.S.–Soviet collusion in Afghanistan. In its fantastical interpretation, the great powers had joined together in a plot “to sow discord among the mujahidin” with the ultimate aim of breaking Muslim solidarity.5
These theories consist of allegations divorced from reality; they contain gaping holes and evade obvious facts; the result is a heap of arbitrary and contradictory details vaguely advancing the recurring theme. As more allegations of conspiracy are added, the theories become more densely complex and more bizarrely contradictory.
The conspiracist shields his theory from that which to a rational person would be clear counterevidence. His criterion for considering something as supportive of his claim is wildly permissive, but (according to Pipes) the standard for what would overturn his claims is stringent. And so, not even the patently self-sacrificial actions of Washington can shake the presumption of surreptitious American aggression against Muslims.
There was nothing for America to gain (and it lost much) in the “humanitarian” deployment of troops to Somalia in 1992. U.S. troops were sent to save the lives of foreigners, but according to Muslim conspiracists the mission in Somalia was a subterfuge. Pipes reports that
A Jordanian newspaper saw mass starvation as a new U.S. “scheme aimed at creating further tension” to justify “the dispatch of its war machine.” Iraqi media accused the U.S. government of having “exploited the Somali people's tragedy” in Somalia and giving American soldiers a “license to kill at will.” The People's Arab and Islamic Congress, a fundamentalist group, claimed the U.S. purpose was not feeding people but just the reverse: “genocide” against the Somali people.6
Certain governments regarded such missions as acts of U.S. colonialism, and so did the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group. According to this organization, “On the pretext of providing food aid and achieving peace, the United States is conducting a new colonial policy in a world approaching the 21st century, using U.N. institutions for the plan.”7 America's 1995 military effort in Bosnia—hardly a mission serving U.S. self-interest—was similarly seen as a ruse. Although U.S. bombing raids on Serbs benefited Muslims, Muammar Qadhdhafi of Libya maintained that only “the naÔve and simple-minded” would be fooled into believing that this was Washington's goal. The actual purpose, he explained, was American “revenge on Yugoslavia, the leader of neutrality and the Non-Aligned Movement.”8
To orchestrate such massive feints the plotters must be, and so are depicted as, awesomely powerful. There is, seemingly, no limit to the cunning and intricacy of the conspirators' schemes. The unseen leadership, claims one conspiracist, “chooses its agents, puppets, and pawns well in advance and motivates and moulds them by many methods.” Pipes quotes a young Western-educated Jordanian businessman who explains why Israel expelled a group of four hundred Palestinians in 1992:
[Israel] created the Hamas organization in order to foil Palestinian nationalism. But Israel's grip on the leadership was slipping. So the Israelis selected a new group of leaders and, together with several hundred decoys, shipped them off to Lebanon, where they will become heroes of the struggle. Eventually the Israelis will allow them to return, where they will form the new Hamas power structure. Then Israel will once again be fully in control.9
The plotters are able to do all this in part because they have billions of dollars and copious resources at their disposal, including (as one conspiracist claims) the “media, industry, technology, oil, military hardware, and the intelligence agencies led by Mossad and CIA.” The plotters' agents abound. Israel, allegedly, has “eleven million ambassadors, spies, financiers and company representatives in the world” who, presumably, work covertly. But even Muslims, including heads of state, have been accused of being covert Jews or otherwise in league with plotters. The Egyptian Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb alleged that there is a “massive army of agents in the form of professors, philosophers, doctors and researchers—sometimes also writers, poets, scientists and journalists—carrying Muslim names because they are of Muslim descent” but working for the Zionist cause.10
What motivates the purportedly omnipotent plotters' hostility toward Muslims? Pipes identifies many motives: wealth, hatred for Islam, lust for power, sheer malice. Commenting on the abundance of conspiracies in revolutionary Iran, Pipes writes that “Despite their mortal differences, the shah, his leftist opposition and Khomeini all agreed that the West seeks to steal Iranian resources. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi worried that 'as Iran continued to grow and prosper, we would become an increasingly attractive prize for foreign predators.'” Followers of Khomeini claimed that European and American predators are bent on “devouring the rich resources of the Middle East.”11
The fundamental factor underlying the motives ascribed to conspirators—though Pipes does not identify it—is a moral estimate. The two dominant camps of plotters—Jews/Israelis/Zionists and Europeans/Americans/Crusaders—are non-Muslim and materialistic, and therefore immoral and hostile to Muslims. Sayyid Qutb explained how the un-Islamic predators believe that the most basic needs of man are those shared with animals, “food, shelter and sex.” Indeed, opposition to the teachings of Islam is frequently emphasized by Muslim fundamentalists as the prime motive for conspiracies. Khomeini claimed that “The Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world. Since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear—god forbid!—they may one day achieve their goal.”12 The supposed enemies of Islam purportedly seek sometimes to Judaize or Christianize the Middle East, and sometimes to act out of a hatred that is an end in itself. Sometimes the “they” who plot remain unnamed; that they conspire against Muslims is enough of an identification.
For these reasons, conspiracy theories are an effective tool for deflecting blame—and have been so used. A given regime can invoke a conspiracy implicating foreign interests in order to explain away a crippled economy or some military debacle. In the Iran–Iraq War, for example, both sides alleged that the other was the instrument of a Western/un-Islamic conspiracy. According to Baghdad, Iran was encouraged to launch the war to hobble Iraq's economy and keep it from modernizing, thus protecting the economic interests of the West; according to Teheran, the war was an arrogant, blasphemous attack against faith engineered by the impious West.13 Political leaders such as the last shah of Iran, Nasser of Egypt, and Saddam Hussein have frequently promulgated conspiracy theories to rationalize their failures. The use of conspiracy theories to shrug off responsibility, in Pipes's view, is pervasive and suggests the explanation for their flourishing.
Noting that “Arabs and Iranians today blame others for everything from a poor tomato crop to a military defeat,” Pipes argues that conspiracy theories serve as a means of coping with unpleasant facts. Muslims find solace by blaming their problems on the evils of the West. But, he observes, “Muslims did not resort to conspiracy theories or other facile explanations to account for their failings until sometime after the year 1800”; in ancient and pre-modern Islamic culture there was a paucity of conspiracy theories. This fact is crucial, because it implies that some historical change—some devastating calamity—is responsible for the burst of conspiracy theories in the last two centuries.14
That pivotal event was the Islamic world's awakening, at the close of the 18th century, to the fact of its weak and impoverished status relative to the West. After centuries of basking in the fading afterglow of imperial glory, after centuries of looking down on Europeans as barbarians unworthy of consideration or fear, Muslims found themselves in a world that had somehow gone awry. As the people of Allah, they were promised worldly success; however, they were, and continue to be, mired in stagnant poverty and military inferiority compared with the Western infidels.
A cultural crisis ensued “as the Muslims' traditional sense of superiority vis-‡-vis Christian Europeans rapidly turned into pervasive insecurity. An official at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem captured the plaintive quality of this situation: 'Before we were masters of the world, and now, we're not even masters of our own mosques!'”15 Rather than admit error and adopt rational ideas, many in the Middle East sought ways to justify their traditional beliefs. Their fall from grace, they felt, must be the result of Western treachery: “were it not for Western intrigues against Islam, they tell themselves, Muhammad's people would still enjoy their former superiority over Europe.”16 Hence the embrace of conspiracy theories to blame the failures of Islamic culture on outside forces. Pipes writes that this response “reveals more about the [conspiracist's] unwillingness to take responsibility for himself than about the actual behavior of others.”17
But, while Pipes's account is enlightening, there is more to the appeal of conspiracy theories. The refusal to take responsibility for failures is not causless—nor is the willingness of Muslims to invent and act on flagrantly irrational conspiracy theories.
To understand the mass appeal of such fictions, recall their fantastic character. The data that Pipes has gathered suggest a point that remains implicit in his discussion. These conspiracies theories are, in effect, a superficially secular vocabulary for an essentially superstitious outlook. The conspiracist posits omni≠present, mysterious, malicious, and awesomely powerful forces that leave no fingerprints and that wield unlimited resources; apparently nothing is impossible to them. Instead of calling those omnipresent forces jinn (spirits) or the “evil eye,” the conspiracist conceives of America or Israel or Britain as the evil force possessing the powers of spirits. And so these nations allegedly have unlimited powers to wreak havoc and imperil Muslim values.
Conspiracy theories, in short, are infused with mysticism. The theories are not merely perversely irrational, they are contemptuous of the faculty of reason as man's means of knowledge. The conspiracist “theorizes” in order to bolster a preexisting belief that he regards as true without evidence and in defiance of logic. The absence of evidence, to a conspiracist, is not a weakness in the theory. Evidence is not his standard.
Though it is unsupported by facts or logic, the conspirator steadfastly clings to his belief. The source of his belief is faith—the blind acceptance of some idea sustained by feeling in the absence or defiance of evidence. This epistemology, or philosophy of knowledge, is a fundamental tenet of Islam, as it is of all religions. And this is key to understanding the conspiracist mentality.
Pipes's explanation seriously understates the fundamental role of religion. He considers Islam as one factor among others but rejects it as the principal cause for conspiracy theories, because “Long-established faiths such as Zoroastrianism and Islam change too little to explain the burst of conspiracism in modern times.”18 But observe that a basic supernaturalism and a commitment to faith are the common, recurring features of these conspiracy theories. That Islam and Zoroastrianism have changed little over the centuries may well be true, and Pipes is right to look for a historical turning point as a trigger. Yet it is the continuity of religion's monopoly on the lives and minds of Muslims that is telling.
The reaction of Muslims to the unpleasant reality confronting them, during their historical awakening and ever since, is colored by their fundamental view of reality and of man's place in it—colored, in other words, by their philosophy of life, Islam. The Muslim world's bitter realization of inferiority was first felt on the battlefield more than two hundred years ago and continues to rankle. As one historian (whom Pipes quotes) observed, for Muslims “military defeat was not defeat only in a worldly sense; it also brought into doubt the truth of the Muslim revelation.”19
The conspiracist's belief in the existence of malicious plots seeking to thwart his values, his culture, and his religion is not merely an echo of a superstitious outlook. His entrenched belief and the fear that follows from it are consequences of the fact that he scorns reason and takes faith seriously. The man who shuns facts and logic has jettisoned the means of achieving values and dealing with the world successfully. By relinquishing his means of gaining real knowledge, he renders himself ignorant of the workings of the real world; thus, the world comes to feel like an alien realm to him, a realm in which he does not belong. He rightly feels a lack of control over his life; he feels helpless—because, given his epistemology, he is. He regards the world as inimical to his life—because his cognitive orientation cripples his pursuit of values. He discounts rational explanations identifying earthly causes that he could learn to enact, and instead, imagines supernatural ones that are perforce out of his control.
Taking faith seriously, he looks at the wealth of the West and rather than ask, “What knowledge is required to produce such technological advancement and wealth?” he wonders petulantly, “By what stratagems did the West appropriate that wealth?” The presumption is that understanding the world is irrelevant; success or power or wealth comes as a gift from the gods—or else is stolen from those who are its rightful (because pious) recipients.
The conspiracist believes that his faith should bring him more success than the infidels, but it is they who surpass him. To contemplate the possibility of error here is to contemplate the inefficacy of faith, which, of course, his religion forbids; thus, he is driven to deflect blame and to conjure alternate explanations. Pipes rightly identifies a drive to find excuses, but it is a consequence of the epistemology of faith. The egregiously irrational excuses are an expression of mysticism taken seriously.
Because the conspiracist's view does not require evidence for belief, he can arbitrarily cast himself as the righteous victim of conspiracies. He freely paints Americans, Israelis, and Europeans as conspiring evildoers because, judged according to Islamic ethics, they are irreligious and thus could not be otherwise. From this irrational “explanation” flows an irrational solution: Since piety really is the means to strength and prosperity, Muslims must rededicate themselves accordingly and confront the infidels.
This perverse mentality is hardly confined to Muslims. The militant subjectivism of Muslim conspiracists is matched, if not surpassed, by that of Christianity. Conspiracy theories of the kind that thrive today emerged during the Church's domination over Europe, in the era of the Crusades. Christians scorned Jews as infidels and thus enemies of the faith; this evaluation spawned accusations of Jewish conspiracies against Christians—hence the fears that Jews desecrated Christian religious objects—hence the calumny that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in rituals—hence the charge that they schemed to poison wells and thereby wipe out Christians. This line of anti-Jewish conspiracies has endured in the West and has left a deep imprint on the Arab–Islamic world, where conspiracy theories have burgeoned.
The widespread appeal of conspiracies—not just among fundamentalists but also among ostensibly secular Muslims—is revealing of the intellectual character of the Middle East. As one scholar (quoted by Pipes) observed, the presumption of conspiracy is such that for an Iranian to ignore it is “(a) to indicate ignorance of the superior forces around oneself or one's nation and (b) to demonstrate the stupidity, naÔvetÈ or insensitivity not to perceive the hidden motive of others.”20 The public's belief in that presumption enables political leaders such as Arafat, Nasser, and Hussein—who are far from being fundamentalists—to promulgate conspiracy theories, confident that their arbitrary assertions will be taken seriously. This is a keen indication of the degree to which the widespread acceptance of faith informs the thinking even of those who would consider themselves nonreligious.
The avid consumption of conspiracy theories belies the sanguine assumptions of many in the West about the intellectual climate and the prospects for civilized society in the Middle East. Although large numbers of the Muslim public may travel by car rather than on mule, wear blue jeans and business suits rather than flowing robes, eat at McDonald's rather than at traditional food stands—what they believe remains profoundly pre-scientific, mystical, and dangerous. They may watch television (perhaps even beamed in by satellite) but what they hear on news programs all too often are conspiracy theories echoing an outlook that is hostile to facts, logic, and reason. They want to regard Israel or the United States as a villain, and therefore they do, regardless of what either country actually says or does. They want to regard diplomacy as a pretense, and therefore they do. They want to see themselves as noble victims, and therefore they do. The consumers of conspiracy theories accept these stories because the theme comports with their basic philosophic outlook—because they take faith seriously.
For U.S. policy-makers and others concerned with the Middle East, this presents a formidable challenge. A culture that laps up conspiracy theories is not only susceptible to political manipulation by dictators and demagogues, it is also stirred to action by calls to defend its faith and culture from the alleged predations of the West. Islamic fundamentalists have found—and will continue to find—many eager recruits. New volunteers joining the Islamist jihad against the West are streaming into Iraq from across the Middle East and farther afield.
The conspiracist mentality is widespread and entrenched in the Arab–Islamic world. What engenders and sustains it is the epistemology of faith; armed and unleashed, this mentality is a real threat to the civilized world.
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1 Khomeini quoted by Daniel Pipes, The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy (New York: St. Martins, 1996), p. 14; The Interagency OPSEC Support Staff (IOSS), “Global History – July to December” <http://www.ioss.gov/docs/julytodecember.html>.
2 Pipes, The Hidden Hand, p. 310.
3 Ibid., p. 311.
4 Television station Al Alam (Iran), April 2004; translated by Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), April 30, 2004, No. 705 <http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=subjects&Area=antisemitism&ID=SP70504>.
5 Pipes, The Hidden Hand, pp. 251–252.
6 Ibid., p. 111.
7 Ibid., p. 111.
8 Ibid., pp. 267–268.
9 Ibid., pp. 182–183.
10 Ibid., pp. 172–173, 180.
11 Ibid., p. 185.
12 Ibid., pp. 184, 187.
13 Ibid., pp. 188–189.
14 Ibid., p. 298.
15 Ibid., p. 300.
16 Ibid., p. 300.
17 Ibid., p. 304.
18 Ibid., p. 298.
19 Ibid., p. 299.
20 Ibid., p. 77.