Conspiracy theories and our view of others
Until a given society engages in frank introspection, progress is impossible. Nowhere is this truer than in Arab societies, writes Azmi Ashour
One of the greatest advantages of discourse analysis is that it can hone in on the way of thought and the mentality of any society. When we turn to political and cultural discourse analysis in Arab societies, such as the Egyptian society of which this writer is a member, we find that the phenomenon of "us" versus the "other" is quite pronounced. The "other" is the negative antithesis to the positive "us". He is the enemy of our nation and of our religion. He is the heretic who wants to steal our abundant wealth and resources. We are Muslims; they are not. We are the victims; they are the aggressors. The dualities are innumerable, but here is the crucial question: what is it in our mentality that keeps insisting that the question of our progress, or lack thereof, is so heavily contingent on the other?
Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the residual effects of the colonial era on our collective consciousness. Even so, we should bear in mind that those who moulded those effects into a particular cultural mind-set are responsible for sharpening the us-versus-the other dualities in ways that have been highly instrumental in aggravating the intellectual and cultural underdevelopment of our societies. There are two categories of such individuals. One consists of that generation of dictators who, on the pretext of liberating their societies, played on the theme of the "enemies of the nation" in order to enhance their own legitimacy and to divert attention from problems at home. One of the effects was to keep their societies mentally mobilised for the "sacred" patriotic war against the other. Prime among this style of dictator are Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Syria's Al-Assad family, which has taken the battle of the rejectionist front to the glorious height of decimating the entire Syrian population. The second category consists of the proponents of the various brands of Islamist discourse, from the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Their us-versus-the other discourse holds that anyone who subscribes to a creed other than theirs is heretic and that societies that do not adhere to Islam (as they define it) are heretical societies. This applies to Western societies in particular, of course. Their rhetoric draws on some isolated instances of persecution of Muslims in the West, such as the case of Bosnia. The rhetoric overlooks the fact that it was Western nations that came to the rescue of Bosnian Muslims and that the case of Bosnia was one of the many different ethnic wars that erupted in the Balkans in the 1990s. It also fails to mention that ethnic strife is to be found in all societies, including our own Arab and Islamic societies. But then, acknowledging such facts would weaken the Bosnian exception as a marketing instrument used by those who stake their legitimacy and earn their living on anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
The Arab Spring revolutions revealed sources of strength that had long remained suppressed under the grip of the them-versus-us conspiracy theories. These strengths found a voice the moment Arab societies moved outside the boxes of conventional rhetoric and adopted causes and values more immediately connected to concerns and conditions of life in these societies. Calls for freedom, social justice and human dignity became passwords that brought out millions of ordinary people to city squares to topple powerful and long-entrenched dictatorships, and to do so peacefully. Egypt's grassroots revolution accomplished this end in a record 18 days.
However, the spurt of awareness that characterised the initial phase of the revolution did not last long. Seizing upon the openings available during the transitional phase, Islamists elbowed their way to the fore, playing on the old type of them-versus-us themes to leverage themselves into power. The train of fictions they weaved might lead one to believe that people in this part of the world do not sleep at night until they have concocted yet another conspiracy theory on how the "other" is plotting against Islamic societies to deprive them of their wealth and prosperity. Ironically, the fact that the majority of these societies are, in reality, among the poorest and most wretched societies on earth helps create an environment where such a conspiracy theory mentality can take hold.
If the events of 11 September over a decade ago worked to shape a negative image of Arab/Muslim societies in the Western mind, the recent murder of the US ambassador to Libya and the storming of US embassies in numerous Arab capitals in response to a film that offended the Prophet Mohamed do nothing to correct that image. Indeed, these violent reactions only serve to confirm Western stereotypes. Surely that wave of rampage should cause us to pause to consider whether that us-versus-others mentality is the road to progress or will keep us mired in the cycle of poverty, backwardness and tyranny.
The way forward for any society starts with frank introspection. Unfortunately, this task will grow more difficult under the Islamist newcomers who cloak themselves and their ideas in an aura of sanctity, which they defend with an arsenal of conspiracy theories. As long as we remain prey to the us-versus-the other mentality, how will we ever learn that our most formidable enemy resides in ourselves, in the perceptual blinders we have constructed, in our ignorance? How will we be able to identify what it is in our culture that keeps us from learning and bettering ourselves so that we can truly honour and promote the dignity of man, as Islam itself instructs us to do? This moral and religious duty will continue to elude us as long as we remain in the business of buying and selling words without trying to understand the meaning of human dignity and without working to achieve it using the means and mechanisms appropriate to the age we live in.
The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.