Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Conspiracy theories

While conspiracy theories flourish in almost every culture, only in a few do they dominate the political landscape, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I cannot remember the last time I read a newspaper without finding the word “conspiracy” in some headline or opinion article. The terms “fifth column,” “forces of evil,” “agents,” “dubious people,” “wars of fourth generation” are also frequent. 

Conspiracies are everywhere and explain anything, it seems. The defeat in the 1967 War was the outcome of a well-planned conspiracy. The 2011 Revolution was the fruit of another one, and the present shape of the Middle East is the consequence of an American plot. Even the spread of disease is to be explained by devious actions by evil powers. Conspiracies are everywhere, and they are well hidden. Fortunately, there are those who are expert in finding them and unveiling the evil-doers. Every political camp has its own list of the latter, but the US and Israel are constant suspects.

Conspiracy theories flourish in almost every culture, but only in a few do they dominate the political landscape. The distinguished French philosopher Pierre André Taguieff, who devoted a lot of time to tracking conspiracy theories, provides some interesting insights. He analysed their narrative structure, their producers and their audience. He also studied the psychological motivation of their producers and the consequences of their spread.

The predilection for conspiracy theories explains why messages rarely convince even when they contain plausible and well-thought-out things. People say “how can we believe the regime, or the elite, or the political forces that keep broadcasting such awful things?” Of course, this indignation is selective, and those who do not want to hear anything from one source can forgive others for using the same narrative or even believe them. Nevertheless, disqualification remains a powerful weapon.

Conspiracy theories flourish for many reasons, one of them being the connection between politics, intrigue and secrecy, especially in highly hierarchical societies or states. Finding conspiracies is to be “clever” and to advertise an ability to “unveil” them. It demonstrates political acumen and is a form of revenge for being excluded from the group of decision-makers. They can plan whatever they plan, the conspiracy theorists say, but we are smarter than them.  

Taguieff says that conspiracy theories did not disappear with the emergence of the democratic age. Democracy claims that the people are sovereign, and this is a very mysterious thing. In a democracy, the urge to unveil is great and almost compulsory. Nobody really believes that the people really rule, and it is assumed that there are hidden centres of power that do so in their place. Democracy at its best is a mixture of order and disorder, and many dislike the latter and need to explain it by the action of malevolent forces.

We all know that conspiracy theories often explain catastrophic failures without questioning our own responsibility. They help people to take on the posture of victims, those who belong to the forces of goodness. This line of thought also says that people are targeted because they are exceptionally good, and that therefore it was necessary for them to be destroyed. The magnitude of a disaster proves how good they are and how bad are the evil-doers. The main problem is how to build up a credible story in which a defeated leader is a powerful and knowledgeable figure, someone who is aware of unfolding conspiracies, but is nevertheless unable to prevent them. Conspiracy theorists are always up to the challenge.

Many people think of conspiracy theories as a form of manipulation. They are the product of insecurity and explain it and help to disseminate it. Paranoia becomes routine, and a culture of fear is spread. Conspiracy theories also prevent any reconsideration of the essentialist worldview that says that the evil-doers can do no good and that if the evidence tends towards the contrary this is because they are good at hiding their real intentions. Conspiracy theories also strengthen the state’s monopoly over some issues, instructing people not to speak to foreigners or the foreign media, but to trust knowledgeable people instead.

This view overlooks the fact that the ruling elites are not the only producers of such theories and that more often than not conspiracy theorists believe their own theories.

Conspiracy theories, Taguieff says, are also spread by people who are “plotters” and who feel that they can also organise such conspiracies or plots without too much attention being paid to the collateral damage. As a result, they think that the larger players also behave like them. 

I have often wondered why so many otherwise smart people believe in conspiracy theories. In the Middle East, the two major events of the previous century were the collapse of the former Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided it up between Britain and France and the creation of the state of Israel. Despite new historical findings, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the political maneuvering by Britain and France still look like a secret plot. For us, plots have undoubtedly happened. Two of the main political movements in the region in the last century, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baath Parties in Syria and Iraq, were also secret organisations with plotters at their heads.

Political analysis is an art of “connecting the dots.” But it is important to know which dots should be connected and which should not. When it is not possible to hold discussions with political actors from across the political spectrum, and when it is not possible to accept that disorder happens, there is a tendency to connect the dots too easily and discover rational intentions and grandiose plans that do not exist. 

It is also possible to overestimate the rationality of political leaders. There are problems in admitting that they can commit terrible mistakes. Consider the fateful US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Almost all the Arab experts knew that this would mean either permanent US occupation, or the decisive strengthening of Iran, or both. It seems impossible to consider the hypothesis that the US leadership simply did not see these things. As a result, some think the invasion was part of a plan to “punish” Saudi Arabia by strengthening Iran.

Is paranoia necessary for the political leadership and security services? Look at the broader picture and prepare for the worst looks like sound advice. But is it? Finding imaginary plots can also mean missing opportunities. It can strengthen the case for pre-emptive action or it can lead to a reactive stance. Both of these are often unwise.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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