How conspiracy theories hold the Arab world back
Roger Cohen, a prominent author and well-traveled journalist, once wrote that in the Arab world conspiracy theories are “the ultimate refuge of the powerless.” In fact, conspiracies have become a prevalent component of Arab culture and politics; elaborate theories circulate widely as all members of society debate the sources of the turmoil that has rocked the Arab world.
That a society would seek to understand the roots of social, economic, and political developments in its region or the world at large is of course only reasonable. However, in the Arab world, trying to figure out why the British, French, and Israelis came to be at odds with Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956, for instance, has been hamstrung by conspiracy theories to the point where the obvious economic, social, and political reasons are ignored in favor of intrigue and the seemingly unstoppable dark forces of the world. The same can be said about broader issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, civil wars, regime changes, the constant shifts of politics and economics, and society’s endless mutability. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, and conspiracies from an impassioned search for actual solutions to and/or sources of society's ills.
Unfortunately, in a part of the world where the public is largely at a distance from the levers of power and influence, and a lack of any real transparency in government is often coupled with state-controlled media and intellectual laziness, it is no wonder that most cling to vast, elaborate conspiracies to explain a country’s ills. This vulnerability to conspiratorial thinking goes deeper, as most educational curriculums in the Arab world do not emphasize self-questioning, critical thinking, research, and preparing eager, young minds to be worldly wise. Thus, when the time comes for the countries of the Arab world to tackle the major issues that plague them or to engage with other nations, these occasions become mired in suspicion, doubt, and recriminations rather than opportunities for constructive debate, self-reflection, or the execution of plans for the realization of mutually beneficial goals.
The difference between conspiratorial beliefs in the US and in the Arab world is a matter of degree rather than kind.
Conspiracy theories are, of course, not specific to the Arab world. In the US, even before the birth of the nation, some early settlers believed Native Americans were conspiring against them with the Devil himself. Later, conspiracy theories circulated about the moon landing, the assassination of President Kennedy, the CIA, and many other topics. The difference between conspiratorial beliefs in the US and in the Arab world is a matter of degree rather than kind. In the US, such thinking is marginal and limited to small circles. In the Arab world, unfortunately, such conspiratorial explanations are far more dominant and widespread, even among the educated. Some verge on the ridiculous; for example, the widespread theory about Israel being behind the shark attacks in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2010, or the theories about the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, or those concerning who is behind Daesh, or why Iraq was invaded, and so on. Even Coca-Cola and Pepsi are not immune; theories assert that these brands maliciously include pork and alcohol, and that their names carry pro-Israel and anti-Islamic messages.
The most devastating aspect of this widespread resignation to simple conspiratorial answers in the face of complicated and long-term problems is that it reflects a broken spirit and a complete loss of confidence. It makes Arabs think of themselves as slaves and puppets in the hands of the “all-powerful West” and helpless victims of “Zionism.” Such thinking suggests that the entire modern history of the Arab world was decided by foreign powers intent on “weakening Islam and destroying the Arab world.”
This way of thinking has real and tangible consequences in politics, economics, and society as a whole. For one, if everything is controlled by an undefined, general, and loosely described “Them,” then there is no point exercising reason, logic, and will to determine anything. This resignation and sense of helplessness paralyzes the Arab mind and limits its capacity to think critically and pragmatically about important issues. Believing that the future is the logical result and consequence of designs and actions taken today becomes completely forgotten. The future, then, becomes nothing more than dreams and wishful thinking. Another consequence is that such thinking characterizes domestic politics and economics as a “puppet show”; this approach undermines and discredits national governments, which are seen as without agency, moved only by the strings of foreign powers. Finally, it simply confuses facts with opinions and rumors that have no basis in fact and sets the region on the track of combating imaginary and fictional enemies.
As the region’s reality becomes more complex and the avalanche of information becomes more constant, fake news, disinformation, wishful thinking, and outright propaganda spread wider and deeper. They find a home in uncritical minds, which look for simple explanations and more reasons to blame the other, rather than using critical thinking and self-reflection to understand what went wrong and how to make things better.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of Strategic Advisory Solutions International in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell