Arab Obsession with Conspiracy Theories (L'Orient Le Jour, Lebanon)
"What do three
highly symbolic events in the history of the Arab and Muslim world in the 21st
century - the attacks of September 11, 2001, the revolts of 2011 (the Arab Spring)
and the recent offensive by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria - have in
common? … All three were catalysts allowing the genesis and the spread of new
conspiracy theories. … In the Middle East, which is coveted by others because
of its geographical position, its energy resources and its confrontational coexistence
with the state of Israel, how do we draw the line between conspiracy theory and
the simple gamesmanship of the great powers?"
What do three highly symbolic events in the history of the
Arab and Muslim world in the 21st century - the attacks of September 11, 2001,
the revolts of 2011 (the Arab Spring) and the recent offensive by the Islamic
State (IS) in Iraq and Syria - have in common?
All three were catalysts allowing the genesis and the spread
of new conspiracy theories, and all have been analyzed, deciphered and
commented upon by some in the political and/or religious class whose interpretations
take a conspiratorial approach. For instance, Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb,
grand imam of al-Azhar [video, top right], still a point of reference
for Sunni Islam as head of al-Azhar University, unequivocally
described the Islamic State last September as a "colonial creation that
serves Zionism in its plot to destroy the Arab world." And if a personality
of fame can express things like this without being marginalized, it is because such
theories are widely echoed by the local population.
How do these theories influence political thought in the
Arab world? How can we explain their success? Do they emerge from the logic of exploitation
or reflect sincerity? And finally, how can they be successfully deconstructed?
Understanding the disparate link between conspiracy theories and the Arab-Muslim
world is a delicate task. Not only because part of the explanation likely falls
within unidentifiable parameters or at least parameters unidentified before, but
because it is essential to avoid falling into always tempting essentialism [so obvious
it needn't be explained]. L'Orient-Le-Jour
questioned TarekMitri, a former acting culture
and foreign minister, columnist, historian and former Finance Minister Georges Corm, Carla Edde, head of the History and International Relations Department
at Saint Joseph
University in Beirut, political scientist and professor of Middle Eastern studies
at American University in Paris ZiadMajed, researcher of Islamic issues at the French
Institute of the Middle East RomainCaillet, and JulienGiry, a doctor of political science who wrote his thesis on
conspiracy in American political and popular culture.
Agreement: where it all began
For Saint Joseph University's Carla Edde,
Agreement is the first event to have been seized upon for conspiracy theories in
the Arab world. While most people didn't know what the agreement meant they nevertheless
likened it to Machiavellian imperialism. "It must be remembered that the
First World War was a very important step for the Arab world. The uncertainty
and loss of clarity for local people was a very traumatic shock," she analyzed,
noting that "the rise of anti-Europeanism in the Arab world came after the
fall of the Ottoman
Empire." From then on, the Europeans and later the Americans became
"the source of all misfortune," she explains. "The second major
traumatic shock was the creation of Israel and the Nakba
[1948 Palestinian exodus]. Anti-imperialism became increasingly popular and
fueled the spread of these theories," she adds. The propagation of
conspiracy theories cannot be disconnected from the political developments of
the time. In other words, Conspiracy theories have, to a certain extent, been receptacles
for feelings of injustice, fear and frustration, which have been largely justified.
Former Culture Minister TarekMitri concurs in part when he explains that
"conspiracy theories are based on a hunch or partially true information."
Even if he considers that it is "not imaginary but rather a
misunderstanding, intellectual laziness or a lack of good faith." All the
same, he says "Arabs have good reason to be suspicious of the West."
That said - Mitri tempers his remarks by adding that
"this suspicion alone cannot be the key to interpreting the Arab world."
In addition, he considers that referring to conspiracy theories not only allows
people to abdicate responsibility but "flatter our collective narcissism."
In other words, by dividing the world between the good and evil, "us and
them," and considering themselves to be the subject of an international
conspiracy, advocates of these theories tend to believe that they "are at
the center of the world" Mitri says. "In
the case of the Arab world that is a contradiction, since it is less and less
important in the eyes of the rest of the world, particularly America's."
A Jewish Bolshevik
For his part, author and former Finance Minister Georges
Corm recalls that "the most widespread conspiracy theories relate to the Protocols
of the Elders of Zion - and these were imported from Europe in the 1930s."
The author also states that Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that bought
into this the most. "In several discussions with leaders of the Wahhabi Kingdom, I noted at the time how convinced they
were of the existence of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy," Corm said.
"This anti-Jewish tone nevertheless has declined sharply since the
strengthening of the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States,"
For Corm, such plots depend on the imagination and their use
is quite detrimental, as it is used to intellectually paralyze an opponent.
"The people should not be held responsible. It is the
responsibility of leaders and intellectuals" who deny "the complexity
of events by presenting a bipolar and Manicheanimage"
of international relations. Finally, Corm differentiates between conspiracy
theories that are the product "of s singular vision unattached to any
structure" and those that are manipulation by powers based on their interests
in the region, which, according to him, are "very well documented and answer
the needs of specific goals." What he calls "the attempt to divide
the region by exacerbating community tensions" falls fully within this logic.
And perhaps that's the key problem: in the Middle East, which is coveted
by others because of its geographical position, its energy resources and its confrontational
coexistence with the state of Israel, how do we draw the line between
conspiracy theory and the simple gamesmanship of the great powers?, "especially
Posted By Worldmeets.US
In relation to this, Mitri and
Corm were asked to comment on the success of conspiracy theories after September
11, after the Arab revolts [Arab Spring] and after the recent offensive by the
Islamic State. The similarities but also the differences raised by their
analyses perhaps form the basis of a response to this critical issue.
As for the Islamic State offensive, it is interesting to
note that both authors question the method of the birth and development of this
organization. If Mitri considers that it's too early
to judge, Corm, for his part, denounces it as an external tool to bring about
"This is the same jihadist army that has existed since
the first Afghan war and that the United States uses as a weapon of terror,"
Corm says. As for the Arab revolts, the two intellectuals agree on the fact
that they are purely the result of popular demands. That said, whereas Mitri doesn't differentiate between the Tunisian and the
Libyan cases since, according to him, "We know enough about social
realities to see that internal dynamics are at the root of these uprisings and
that there has been little influence from outside." Corm doesn't put the Tunisia,
Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain uprisings on the same level as those that have erupted
in Libya and Syria. For the latter cases, the author favors the theory of
outside manipulation, while Mitri, to the contrary,
emphasizes that "the role of the United States in the Arab revolutions is
Finally, it's surprising to see how the opinions of the
two authors differ over how conspiracy theories spread after September 11.
According to Mr. Mitri, the success of these theories
in the Arab world is partially explained "by the fact that most conspiracy
literature is produced in the West."
"When a Western, revisionist author discusses these
theories, it reinforces their successful propagation in the
Arab world," he explains. For his part, Corm considers "that there
are a significant number of very serious people who question the narrative of
the authorities" and that the notion that "a handful of Saudis could
achieve this feat doesn't really stack up." He concludes by saying that
"we will never know what really happened."
To dismantle conspiracy theories, it is absolutely essential
that historians and intellectuals work harder - particularly in Arabic. "We
need to explain - to offer verified and verifiable information," Mitri concludes.