On Arabs and Conspiracy Theories
Brian E. Frydenborg
The idea of Arabs as helpless spectators in some global plot run by secret cabals only hinders the advancement of Arab society
When I first came to the Middle East, I was amazed at how widespread and deep acceptance of conspiracy theories was among locals. People of all walks of life and backgrounds in the Middle East—rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, liberal, conservative, gay, straight—buy enthusiastically into various conspiracy theories and are happy to share them, whether such sharing is solicited or unsolicited. And while yes, conspiracy theories are also gaining far more widespread acceptance in the West these days (Trump being incredibly enthusiastic in his support and perhaps the most powerful supporter of such nonsense), the degree to which they are accepted in a massive manner in the Middle East sets the region apart compared to the West and many others.
It takes some time to understand why there is such great appeal for fantastical thinking in the Middle East, but after some investigation the reasons become clear.
For one thing, there is a reality of a long period of time through today in which most people lived here under some sort of centralized, repressive state that afforded few people the ability to learn, think, or express freely; politics was (and is) usually the domain of a centralized (often theocratic) non-democratic system run by a sultan, caliph, king, or dictator, and there was (and is) little room for civil society to assert itself. This goes back especially to the Ottoman period but also to well before and has continued into the post-colonial, current era, meaning this part of world has been set-up for quite some time in ways that produce less variety in thinking and more herd-like mentalities. This is not to deny the golden age of learning in the early Islamic period, when Arab societies were far ahead of the West, but that was a very long time ago.
Furthermore, critical thinking as part of the academic curriculum in the Middle East/North Africa region is woefully and famously lacking. Many an Arab today may graduate with a degree in engineering, but the educational systems in the region are producing very few people who are capable (or feel like they safely can) produce intellectual work that openly challenges the ruling systems and the elites who run them, or that challenge the prevailing mentalities, Islam, and Arab culture, at least not while living in the Middle East.
And from the café to the classroom, there is also little that is original in terms of discourse and ideas being bandied about, a truth reflected in the fact that just a few years ago, the country of Belgium (about 11 million people) had a market for books four times larger than the entirety of the Arab world (about 380 million people). This statistic is hardly lessened by governments in the region generally not allowing, or at least severely restricting, the free expression of ideas.
Such repression and the accompanying lack of political freedom means that it is difficult for people to get publicly assemble together to discuss politics, and, what has happened in the modern era and still is happening now is that this drives most political opposition to what is usually the one place it is easy for people to congregate in large numbers: the mosque. This has led most Arab opposition to fall under the Muslim Brotherhood’s domain or something related or similar to it. And, as noted, long-gone are the eras where Islamic nations sponsored some of the world’s great centers of learning, intellectual inquiry, and philosophical debate. In other words, the climate leaves little room for a well-organized liberal opposition, and instead funnels what is usually the only acceptable mass opposition (if there is any) down a conservative, even fundamentalist path. Given everything just mentioned, it should hardly be surprising that there are very low levels of community activism and engagement, and this mixes with the lack of sophisticated intellectual discourse in a destructive, self-reinforcing negative feedback loop that perpetuates a lack of organized critical inquiry, leaving the minds of the region all-too receptive to oversimplistic conspiracy theories. This is especially true in more repressive and structured societies (an apt description for most Arab nationa) that lack transparency and detailed presentations of the deliberative process behind the decisions made by elites, leaving Arabs to be more and more imaginative in explaining their situations.
With a sophisticated, wide, nuanced debate absent, political life in Arab countries has stagnated and atrophied; short bursts of hope that moments of upheaval will produce major reform have disappointed time and time again or have failed to deliver enough reform quickly enough to inspire widespread enthusiasm or hope. Understandably, mass cynicism has, instead, filled that void, a cynicism that thrives in a polygamous marriage with hopelessness and helplessness.
I am not sure what the far older, historical context of the expression inshallah (“if God wills it”) was, but in modern times, whether intended to outside audiences or not, there is near-universal sense among non-Arabs that inshallah carries with it a distinct sense of “It’s up to God, not me; the circumstances and outcome are out of my control; don’t hold me responsible.” Such inshallahs are applied to everything: whether one will get a job, score well on a test, even be on time for an appointment. The Arab world teaches you patience whether you want the lesson or not, and whether I am seeking to get an Arab friend to agree to a meeting time or an Arab electrician to come and fix a light, when the response to the idea that they will come at such-and-such a time is “inshallah,” nearly always at best I expect a 50% chance that that will actually be the case.
Relatively speaking, living in these systems that produce so little original thought and in which the populace has such a strong sense of both being helpless spectators and not having a responsibility for the current situation, it is also hardly surprising that in seeking to explain their helplessness that their explanations would also absolve them from any blame, with a very high tendency to see everything as some sort of master plan to keep Arabs down and divided. Almost invariably, the people behind such a master plan are one or more of the following: the Illuminati, the Masons, the CIA, the Mossad, or “the Jews.” The last one deserves a bit of discussion: as Arabs have basically been repeatedly soundly defeated by the Israelis in one conflict after another and lost territory important to them to Israel, rather than some sort of expression of deep-seated anti-Semitism in the historical-religious sense, this is more a belief expressed by a defeated people that those who defeated them (naturally!) had to be an all-powerful group that dominates the world and, most regrettably, buying into long-Western developed/propagated bigoted myths about Jews is as satisfying an explanation as any to explain why Israelis have beaten Arabs in conflict time and time again. It is a natural desire to see your enemy as all-powerful rather than beatable after you lost, to ascribe victory to some sort of global conspiracy rather than examine your side’s own actions, decisions, mistakes, or mentalities. This ties into the inshallah helplessness in which, once again, self-examination and taking responsibility is discouraged, and instead those working against the Arabs are so powerful and all-controlling that free will is not present, with Arabs seeing themselves generally as tragic pawns, victims without agency. So dots are connected where there are no connections, nearly everything is a result of what the secretive “they” have plotted, and everything happen for reasons tied to the aforementioned.
Such thinking, in the words of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, “is the paltry harvest of captive minds. Such minds resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.”
Historically, Arabs have most certainly been victims for many centuries in a row, beginning largely with Turks and Mongols up to the period of direct Western colonialism and imperialism and into the present. But only the truth and nuanced, well-informed debate can help advance understanding and thus move towards a better way forward for Arabs, not conspiracy theories nor the thinking that supports them.