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Inside jobs and Israeli stooges: why is the Muslim world in thrall to conspiracy theories?

The “We’ve been lied to” argument goes only so far. Scepticism may be evidence of a healthy and independent mindset; but conspiracism is a virus that feeds off insecurity and bitterness.

The outskirts of Sukkur in Pakistan in 2010. Photo: Getty
There's a theory out there that the 2010 floods in Pakistan were caused by secret US military technology. . . Photo: Getty

Did you know that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, was trained by Mossad and the CIA? Were you aware that his real name isn’t Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai but Simon Elliot? Or that he’s a Jewish actor who was recruited by the Israelis to play the part of the world’s most wanted terrorist?

If the messages in my email in-box and my Twitter timeline and on my Facebook page are anything to go by, plenty of Muslims are not only willing to believe this nonsensical drivel but are super-keen to share it with their friends. The bizarre claim that NSA documents released by Edward Snowden “prove” the US and Israel are behind al-Baghdadi’s actions has gone viral.

There’s only one problem. “It’s utter BS,” Glenn Greenwald, the investigative journalist who helped break the NSA story, told me. “Snowden never said anything like that and no [NSA] documents suggest it.” Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner, has called the story a hoax.

But millions of Muslims across the globe have a soft spot for such hoaxes. Conspiracy theories are rife in both Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities here in the west. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” unleashed a vast array of hoaxers, hucksters and fantasists from Birmingham to Beirut.

On a visit to Iraq in 2002, I met a senior Islamic cleric who told me that Jews, not Arabs, had been responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He loudly repeated the Middle East’s most popular and pernicious 9/11 conspiracy theory: that 4,000 Jews didn’t turn up for work on 11 September 2001 because they had been forewarned about the attacks.

There is, of course, no evidence for this outlandish and offensive claim. The truth is that more than 200 Jews, including several Israeli citizens, were killed in the attacks on the twin towers. I guess they must have missed the memo from Mossad.

Yet the denialism persists. A Pew poll in 2011, a decade after 9/11, found that a majority of respondents in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon refused to believe that the attacks were carried out by Arab members of al-Qaeda. “There is no Muslim public in which even 30 per cent accept that Arabs conducted the attacks,” the Pew researchers noted.

This blindness isn’t peculiar to the Arab world or the Middle East. Consider Pakistan, home to many of the world’s weirdest and wackiest conspiracy theories. Some Pakistanis say the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is a CIA agent. Others think that the heavy floods of 2010, which killed 2,000 Pakistanis, were caused by secret US military technology. And two out of three don’t believe Osama Bin Laden was killed by US navy Seals on Pakistani soil on 2 May 2011.

Consider also Nigeria, where there was a polio outbreak in 2003 after local people boycotted the vaccine, claiming it was a western plot to infect Muslims with HIV. Then there is Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, where leading politicians and journalists blamed the 2002 Bali bombings on US agents.

Why are so many of my fellow Muslims so gullible and so quick to believe bonkers conspiracy theories? How have the pedlars of paranoia amassed such influence within Muslim communities?

First, we should be fair: it’s worth noting that Muslim-majority nations have been on the receiving end of various actual conspiracies. France and Britain did secretly conspire to carve up the Middle East between them with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. They also conspired to attack Egypt, with Israel’s help, and thereby provoked the Suez crisis of 1956. Oh, and it turned out there weren’t any WMDs in Iraq in 2003 despite what the dossiers claimed.

I once asked the Pakistani politician Imran Khan why his fellow citizens were so keen on conspiracy theories. “They’re lied to all the time by their leaders,” he replied. “If a society is used to listening to lies all the time . . . everything becomes a conspiracy.”

The “We’ve been lied to” argument goes only so far. Scepticism may be evidence of a healthy and independent mindset; but conspiracism is a virus that feeds off insecurity and bitterness. As the former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani has admitted, “the contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories” is a convenient way of “explaining the powerlessness of a community that was at one time the world’s economic, scientific, political and military leader”.

Nor is this about ignorance or illiteracy. Those who promulgate a paranoid, conspiratorial world-view within Muslim communities include the highly educated and highly qualified, the rulers as well as the ruled. A recent conspiracy theory blaming the rise of Islamic State on the US government, based on fabricated quotes from Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, was publicly endorsed by Lebanon’s foreign minister and Egypt’s culture minister.

Where will it end? When will credulous Muslims stop leaning on the conspiracy crutch? We blame sinister outside powers for all our problems – extremism, despotism, corruption and the rest – and paint ourselves as helpless victims rather than indepen­dent agents. After all, why take responsibility for our actions when it’s far easier to point the finger at the CIA/Mossad/the Jews/the Hindus/fill-in-your-villain-of-choice?

As the Egyptian intellectual Abd al-Munim Said once observed, “The biggest problem with conspiracy theories is that they keep us not only from the truth, but also from confronting our faults and problems.” They also make us look like loons. Can we give it a rest, please? 

Mehdi Hasan is an New Statesman contributing writer, and works for al-Jazeera English and the Huffington Post UK where this column is crossposted

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