This column is not given to coining aphorisms on the fly, but one readily came to mind the other day as the public debate in the “Arab street” and in some quarters in the Arab media took up the issue of the Sept. 11 attacks on America. Conspiracy theories are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.
The most startling aspect of this phenomenon is that conspiracy theorists have managed to insinuate themselves into the mainstream of the Arab discourse despite their far-fetched and bizarre ideas. What is even more startling is that no major event in our modern history has ever taken place that these folk did not feel the need to attribute a conspiratorial dimension to.
And if you think Arab conspiracy theorists are a fringe group whose kooky notions are merely tolerated by the public (like their counterparts in the US who believe, for example, that President Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA, and that the landing on the moon in 1969 was a hoax), think again. The input of Arab conspiracy theorists about political events, especially those with a sensational or dramatic hook, is of a radically higher order, and commands a more scrupulous hearing.
Take some recent cases.
When Princess Diana died in that car crash in September 1997, some Arab commentators wrote with a straight face, and in respectable journals, to boot, that her death was the result of some diabolical plot by British intelligence to end her life rather than see her married off to an Arab Muslim. A not insignificant number of Arabs embraced that story.
A few months later, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in Washington. How did the story play out in some quarters of the Arab media and in the “Arab street”? It was seen as a conspiracy by the “Jewish lobby” and the “Christian right” to remove Bill Clinton from office, presumably because he was progressively coming round to the idea of a Palestinian state. It had nothing to do with the American president’s penchant for hitting on women; and Lewinsky (who conveniently happened to be Jewish) was seen as an agent-in-place put there in the White House by “Jewish cliques.”
In November 1999, plotters were out there hatching their plots when EgyptAir 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean with a tragic loss of 271 lives. Conspiracy theorists this time attributed the disaster, again with no corroboration to back up their assertions, to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, whose operatives allegedly sabotaged the Egyptian airliner to achieve the twin goals of killing the 22 Egyptian army officers on board and to destroy the Egyptian tourist industry.
The Mossad, it now appears, is at it again. According to these conspiratorialists, it was none other than Mossad agents who were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mossad’s motive? To blacken the name of Arabs and Muslims in the United States and to enable Israel to have its way in Palestine.
We need evidence, guys, evidence — unassailable, objective and concrete evidence. Where is the darn evidence here?
The “evidence” that these folk present to support their claim is that “4,000 Jews” (in some quarters the figure is given as “5,000 Jews”) did not go to work at the World Trade Center on that fateful day because they had been warned to stay away from the site of the impending disaster. The claim becomes considerably less plausible when you think here how improbable it would have been for 4,000 American Jews to be alerted beforehand about the disaster at the Twin Towers with nary a word leaking to a single American Gentile anywhere in New York.
In another version of this plot, a plot “way too sophisticated to mount” by those who now stand accused of it, the Mossad is not the culprit at all, but homegrown terrorists. On Sept. 21, for example, a columnist for the Egyptian daily, Al-Akhbar, wrote in this regard that “it is impossible to suspect the Al-Qaeda organization or any other Middle East organization of the act.” He suggested that it must have been the “American right.” It is dizzying to imagine the confusion it must have taken to make a writer (a writer!) write that.
That this kind of convoluted analysis, analysis backed less by fact than whimsy, should find its way into the public debate is pitiful. It does nothing less than destroy our hold on reality, for a public debate injected with sloppy ideas that are not thought out is a public debate that places us outside a genuine engagement in the global dialogue of cultures.
A critic (as commentator, editorialist, writer and the like) has immediate and special responsibilities toward defining the political tenor of his age. He must ask whether, through his work, he is contributing to the dwindling of that age’s reserves of moral scrutiny or, conversely, to a sane articulation of the link between word and world, mind and reality, in it.
We embrace conspiracy theories at a cost. And the Arabic language pays it. Let us not, I say, debase our great language by using it as a vehicle of intellectual dissimulation and political kitsch, for it is in language that human grace is defined, and in it that we as Arabs find the prime carrier of our equally great civilization.