Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World
Were Jews, as claimed by Lebanese channel Al-Manar on 17September 2001, not present at work on 11 September because of a supposed advance warning? Did Europe, as proclaimed by Iran’s Ahmedinejad, really steal Iran’s rain? You might shake your head dismissively; nonetheless, conspiracy theories such as these can play a part in popular dialogue, persisting with alarming prominence in the influence of social conscience, both affecting and being affected by relations between state and society.
This September marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—possibly one of the biggest catalysts for conspiracy theories in recent history. Documentary programs featured prominently in the aftermath of the event, most famously Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 which served to ignite the suspicions of those who believed the attacks to be an inside job. Ten years on, the 9/11 conspiracy wildfire still burns strong and the UK’s BBC3 has produced Conspiracy Road Trip—a documentary that bundles a group of self-righteous youth, saturated with 9/11 conspiracy beliefs, onto a US bus tour, with the aim of challenging their convictions with scientific fact and eye-witness accounts. The failure of this project to convince them led many viewers to attribute their conspiracist views to fanaticism.
Matthew Gray attempts to debunk the myth that conspiracy theories, long credited to political and social paranoia, can be explained by the pathological mind. He stresses that conspiracism, despite being an outstanding feature of political discourse in the Arab world, is also not entirely exclusive to the region.
Luckily Gray, who has held several positions with the Australian Government, including in the Department of Defense, provides a deeper analysis and attempts to unfold this apparently steadfast belief system. He disregards the common pathological explanation for conspiracism as put forward by various other writers and academics—particularly what he describes as the reductionist, often Orientalist accounts for conspiracism in the Arab world—and picks apart what he believes to be their subsequently weak, insubstantial analyses. Gray examines the complex mix of political structures and dynamics, including key historical events that have created and shaped conspiracy theories in the contemporary Middle East, where he admits the trend is “common, beyond question.”
According to Gray, the subject’s shift into areas of sociology, political science and anthropology means its study is now crucial to understanding political culture—in itself laced with wily, tactical behavior. He admits there are areas—such as in conspiracist entertainment like the X files—where conspiracism’s importance should not be overemphasized, even if it comments on a wider political situation. However, as a result of mass audience media and open institutions, this phenomenon has become much more prominent. Though Gray acknowledges that labeling something as a conspiracy theory is considered derogatory and a conspiracy theorist as “unbalanced,” many conspiracy theories are, he asserts, based on tangible political sources. The conspiracy theories are compounded when facts are distorted, or become misconstrued as evidence of scheming and become a foundation for wilder claims.
Significantly, Gray explores the implication of historical events over several decades in shaping its mentality and legitimizing conspiracist discourse, looking at the Arab world as a region that has often been penetrated by external powers and become a stage for conflict, as well as an invaluable oil resource, making it a particularly vulnerable target for conspiracist rhetoric. Arab conspiracists call upon real or perceived historical injustices to attach logical consistency to their theories. Grievances with and mistrust of the West about the creation of Israel as well as interstate conflict within the Arab world, in addition to subsequent injustices and inconsistencies, create real and perceived conspiracy theories as well as those born out of grievances. Gray uses the major Arab Israeli wars to exemplify real schemes, perceived conspiracies and those he considers were mere accident and miscalculation. Gray also looks at the prominence of colonialism in conspiracist dialogue. He mentions Nasser who in his speeches constantly dwelt upon the humiliation of colonialism in order to provoke suspicion of the West and its involvement in the Middle East, noting Osama Bin Laden who also “drew upon the crusades to justify his actions.” Though the region had suffered violently from other invading forces such as the Mongols, Gray observes the significance of western Christian colonialism.
The distance between state and society and the failure of Arab states to deliver the standards promised by movements such as Arab socialism also led to mistrust of governments and political elites and doubts over the legitimacy of authority. Ultimately, when society loses faith in the state, it promotes conspiracist explanations for state behavior. As the state struggles to maintain popularity and control, it develops its own conspiracy theories—a distraction from its own failures as well as a genuine fear of a neighbor and a means of legitimizing the state. Similarly in the US, the assassination of John F Kennedy was followed by the Vietnam War then the Watergate scandal. That was when Gray believes conspiracism moved from the margins of US society to the populist level. Finally Gray focuses on the effect of the more recent phenomenon of globalization on today’s changing political dynamic, from transnational extremists to transnational media beyond perceived control of the state.
Gray asserts that he is merely clearing the path to the wider study of Arab conspiracism, and since this book was written we have witnessed the so called Arab spring and subsequent dramatic shifts in the politics of the Arab world. However, conspiracy theories continue to thrive as people now speculate upon the reasons for the uprisings, confirming Gray’s argument that conspiracy theories will always have a prominent place in Middle Eastern political language.