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Decrypting the 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?"

 

Translated By Jill Naeem

 

November 15, 2014

 

Lebanon - L'Orient Le Jour - Home Page (French)

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 Tarek Mitri, 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 Ziad Majed, researcher of Islamic issues at the French Institute of the Middle East Romain Caillet, and Julien Giry, a doctor of political science who wrote his thesis on conspiracy in American political and popular culture.

 

The Sykes-Picot Agreement: where it all began

 

For Saint Joseph University's Carla Edde, "the Sykes-Picot 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.

 

SEE EVEN MORE ON THIS:
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Tishreen, Syria: The Global 'Chemical Weapons Conspiracy' Against Syria
Rue 89, France: The White House: A Vast 'Left-Handed' Conspiracy
Alsahwa, Yemen: Arabs Must Let Go of Conspiracy Theories
La Depeche, France: What Can We Do About 9/11 Conspiracies? 'Nothing or Little'
Suedostschweiz, Switzerland: MPs Call for Arrests of Kissinger, Cheney, Bush at Bilderberg

 

Former Culture Minister Tarek Mitri 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 conspiracy

 

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," he said.

 

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 Manichean image" 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 in Arabic."

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 political domination.

 

"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 greatly exaggerated."

 

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.

 

 

 

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Posted By Worldmeets.US November 15, 2014, 8:17am

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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