The Arab Mindset And The Conspiracy Theory
2019 / 1 / 17
Secularism, religion, political Islam
For any person concerned withthe world of ideas, particularly as they relate to the social sciences andthe dynamics and distinctive systems of ideas governing differentsocieties, some issues acquire greater resonance than others. An issuethat has been at the forefront of my concerns for some years now is theprevalence in Arab societies in general, including Egypt, of theconspiracy theory. As far as many millions of Egyptians and Arabs areconcerned, the following propositions have become virtual articles offaith:
◦The blueprint for our recent history and presentreality was drawn up by the great powers, and what we are now livingthrough is the product of their machinations.
◦The powers responsible for this grand design wereBritain and France in the past and the United States, aided andabetted by its protégé, Israel, in the recent past and thepresent.
◦The plans were prepared in great detail by thosepowers, leaving little room for manoeuvre to those at the receivingend, including ourselves, who had no choice but to follow the coursecharted for them.
◦Accordingly, we bear very little responsibility forwhat happened in the past, what is happening in the present, indeed,according to some, for what will happen in the future, all of whichis the predetermined result of a grand design it is beyond our powerto change.
When theelement of Israel is added to this theoretical buildup, the picturebecomes even more inflammatory and provocative. Moving from generalitiesto specifics, it is normal from this perspective to see even the landmarkevents of our modern history as resultants of the plots hatched by thegreat powers. These include the 1956 war, Syria’s secession from Egyptin 1961, the Yemen war of 1962, the June 1967 disaster, the failure tocrown the glorious crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973 with themilitary liberation of the whole of Sinai, President Sadat’s visit toJerusalem in 1977, the Camp David accords signed between Egypt and Israel,the demise of the Soviet Union and the structural collapse of socialismeverywhere. By the same token, the emergence of the United States as thesole global superpower, the New World Order, the GATT and many otherdevelopments are perceived as the consummation of the plans laid down bythe great powers as a blueprint for history.
A paradox worthstudying is that this view is shared to varying degrees by the followingdisparate groups:
•All those who can be classified as ‘Islamic’ believe profoundly in the truth of the propositions which collectivelyform the conspiracy theory. The groups in question include the MoslemBrothers, the Gama’at Islamiya, the Jihad and allfundamentalist movements, indeed, even the most moderate of theIslamic trends. It pains me to have to use the epithet Islamic todesignate groups that are basically nothing more than politicalorganizations, because this implies that whoever does not belong tothose groups should be classified as ‘non’- or ‘anti’- Islamic. Although I am the first to challenge the validity of thisobviously ludicrous implication, I am forced to use what has becomethe widely accepted terminology to describe these groups. If we had toidentify the most devoted adherents of the conspiracy theory, there islittle doubt that this dubious distinction belongs to the Islamists.
•All those who can be classified in one way or anotherunder the banner of socialism, from Marxists to socialists, passingthrough tens of subdivisions of leftist or socialist orientation,including the Nasserites, also subscribe to the conspiracy theory,albeit less rigidly than the Islamists. For while they believe in thetheory as a whole and,
accordingly, in the propositions on which it is based, their belief isnot shrouded in what can be called the spirit of jihad or militancy,nor grounded in anti-Christian feelings as is the case with theIslamists.
Of course, the difference in the degree of rigidity ofthe belief and the fervour of the conviction is due to the theocraticethos of the Islamic groups and the more scientific, progressive andmodern spirit of socialist ideas, even if the failure of those ideas toachieve their aims or live up to their slogans proves that they areinherently flawed.
•The third and final group is made up of ordinarycitizens in the Arab world and Egypt, who belong neither to theIslamic school politically nor to the socialist school ideologically,most of whom are inclined to believe in the conspiracy theory and toaccept the validity of the propositions on which it rests withoutquestion.
It is essential to remember, however, that the reasonsbehind the adherence of each of the three groups to the conspiracy theoryderive from different sources.
•The Islamists, in all their subdivisions, considerthat the history of the region is the history of a conflict betweenIslam on the one side and the Judeo-Christian world on the other. Asfar as they are concerned, the Crusades never stopped, only now theyare being waged not on the battlefield but elsewhere. This groupattaches great importance to the Jewish dimension, which it blames formany of the ills besetting the Arab/Islamic world and the disasterswhich have befallen it.
•The socialist group, in the broad sense of the word,views matters from the perspective of the struggle between what itcalls the forces of imperialism and the oppressed and exploitedpeoples of the world.
•As to the third group, the multitude of ordinarycitizens who subscribe to the conspiracy theory, they reflect theclimate of opinion created by the information media, many of the keyconstituents of which are controlled in this part of the world eitherby the socialist trend or the Islamic trend, and which repeatedlyspout the propositions on which the conspiracy theory rests as thoughthey were gospel truth. In
societies not characterized by a high level of educationand culture, the information media (including the mimbar, or pulpit, ofthe mosque) can be used to brainwash and indoctrinate public opinion. Itis enough to recall that the ministry of information in some countries wasonce called the “ministry of guidance”, a clear admission of thefunction it sets itself, which is to guide and direct.
Actually, the sources from which the three groups drawtheir belief in the conspiracy theory are wholly illusory, with no basisin fact, history or logic. The history of the peoples of our region wouldhave been the same, including their subjugation by western colonialism,even if the region had been part of the Christian world. The West did notcolonize us because we were Muslims, but for quite different reasons. Onthe one hand, we were backward and hence susceptible to foreigndomination, easy pickings, as it were. On the other, the whole colonialenterprise was motivated in the first instance by economic considerations,and, to a lesser degree, by cultural, or ‘civilizational’, considerations, which constitute a broader framework than religiousfactors. Although much can be said to refute the naïve view that theregion’s history with western colonialism can be reduced to a questionof religion, it is sufficient here to cite but a few of the many examplesattesting to the contrary to realize how widely off the mark this view is.
Those who maintain that we would not have been colonizedbut for the fact of our Muslim heritage conveniently forget the darkchapter of our history under the dominion of the Ottoman empire, when thecolonized Arab peoples were subjected to the worst kinds of abuse by theircolonial masters, despite the fact that both colonizer and colonizedbelonged to the Muslim faith. Throughout the eighteenth century, ourancestors were in a deplorable state of backwardness, even though theywere Muslims occupied by Muslims, the Christian West as yet absent fromthe scene. The same situation prevailed when the Zionist movement waslaunched by its Hungarian-born founder, Theodor Herzl, towards the end ofthe nineteenth century; indeed, we had remained locked in a state ofmedieval backwardness for more than six centuries preceding the emergenceof the Jews as a political force capable of affecting the course of eventsin any way.
Though in many ways wrong, the socialist reading of ourhistory with colonialism is right in that it approaches the issue from aneconomic perspective. Certainly the economic factor was the driving forcebehind the West’s imperialist ambitions in the region over the last twocenturies. But this was within a framework quite different from that ofthe conspiracy theory, as we shall explain later.
As to the group of ordinary citizens enamoured of theconspiracy theory, for all that their logic is impaired and cannot standup to any sort of serious discussion or analysis, it is in a wayunderstandable. For even the most outlandish statement, if repeated oftenenough, can come to be accepted as true, especially in a society in whichhalf the population is illiterate and the other half displays only a verymodest standard of education and culture. Here lack of sophisticationprovides a fertile breeding ground for the most untenable, demagogical andunfounded assertions to take root and flourish.
To my mind, the real issue is that most of those whosubscribe to the conspiracy theory know very little about the nature andmechanisms of the capitalist economy or what is called a market, or free,economy. The essence of capitalism is competition, a notion which meansmany things, some positive and wholesome, others negative and unhealthy.But given that all the ideological alternatives to the market economy havefailed lamentably, wreaking such havoc in the societies which adopted themthat they have been relegated to the museum of obsolete ideas, we mustunder no circumstances let our nostalgia for the past or our emotionalreaction to certain aspects of capitalism drive us back into the world ofsocialist ideas. Those ideas have caused so much loss, damage and humansuffering that they have forfeited the right to be given a second chance.Indeed, experience has proved that socialism (both as an ideology and interms of practical application) is not a viable system of beliefs.
As we have said before, however, competition, which is thebackbone of the capitalist economy, is a notion that carries within it notonly positive aspects but also highly negative ones. On the positive side,it works to the benefit of individuals and the enhancement of theirquality of life because, by definition, it leads to a process of constantupgrading of the type and quality of products and services, which in turnoften leads to reducing their cost or price.
On the negative side, it sometimes deteriorates intovicious struggles between the producers of products and services,struggles that can take such diverse forms as driving a rival out of themarket, marginalizing the role of others and grabbing the largest share ofthe market or markets. This feature of the western capitalist systemengenders the belief in countries without a long tradition ofindustrialization and advanced capitalist services that they are thevictims of a well-planned conspiracy.
It is this aspect of competition that I want to cast somelight on, because unless we understand it well and accept that it is aninevitable if unfortunate feature of the market economy, unless we devisea strategy to deal with it as a fact of life in our contemporary world, wewill not attain any of our goals. The competition to which I am referringhere, which is one of the main cornerstones of economic life based on thedynamics of a market economy, was responsible for the wars that toreEurope apart in the last three centuries, indeed, for the two world warsthis century has witnessed.
But after centuries of fighting amongst themselves, theEuropeans came to realize in the last three decades that the advantages ofputting an end to the strife that had convulsed their continent throughoutmuch of its history greatly outweighed the advantages of allowing a spiritof contentious competition to continue ruling their lives. And socompetition in its extreme form was displaced from Europe into otherarenas. The rationale now governing competition in Europe, which continuesto thrive in many different shapes and forms, is mutual coexistence andconsensus on a framework of checks and balances in which competition is tooperate.
To better illustrate the point I am trying to make, Iwould like to draw attention here to a very simple fact, which is that, inan economic system based on competition, the strategic interest of theproducer, or seller, is to remain a seller while ensuring that the buyerof his products or services remains a buyer as long as possible,preferably forever. There can be no switching of roles here. This simpleprinciple is the essence of that aspect of competition which many in ourpart of the world tend to regard as indicative of a conspiracy. Althoughin a way it does resemble a conspiracy, it is very different in terms ofmotivation and the rules which determine its inner workings. This law, oneof the laws governing competition in a free-market economy, operateswithin advanced industrial societies. Its application outside thosesocieties is thus inevitable, expected and unavoidable.
In other words, the economic system in force in theadvanced industrial countries (now also advanced technologically and inthe services sector) is based on unavoidable conflicts fueled bycompetition, which manifest themselves in endless attempts to capture thelargest possible share of the market. This means that the big fish areconstantly trying to swallow the little fish. This process and itsnegative, not to say ferocious, aspects, operates both inside a givensociety and beyond (where it is liable to be even more ferocious). Theterminology and practices of modern management sciences contain many termsand notions that, in the final analysis, serve competition in its variousaspects (both positive and negative). While I do not want to bother thereader with a detailed account of this terminology, the analysis given inthis article would be incomplete if I did not mention at least some of theprincipal notions which have become part of the lexicon of modernmanagement sciences in the contemporary world, such as quality management,global marketing, data confidentiality, the plethora of occupationalhealth systems and environmental considerations. These and tens of otherrecently-coined terms are tailored essentially to serve the interests ofthe big fish who, by applying them, can successfully swallow the smallfish.
We can now add to the big-fish-eat-small-fish law a newlaw running parallel to it, which is that the swift and efficient fishwill gobble up the fish that are less swift and efficient. The hugeconglomerates that have emerged on the global stage in the last twentyyears in the fields of industry, services, technology and commerce attestto the growing ascendancy of this new law. It is very important here todistinguish between what we want to see and what we cannot avoid seeing ifwe do not want to delude ourselves. These laws exist and are fullyoperational and there is no hope after the demise of socialism ofreplacing them with laws that can ensure success, abundance and theavoidance of these aberrations (for those who regard them as such).
It must be said that even the most widely-read and highlycultured intellectual would be unable to fully grasp those new realitiesand laws if his cultural formation is based exclusively on a familiarity,no matter how deep and extensive, with all human and social sciences, butwithout any knowledge of the modern sciences in the fields of management,marketing and human resources and the tens of new specialized fields whichhave branched out of them. No matter how deeply a person may have drunkfrom the tree of
knowledge, how familiar he is with the works of thinkersfrom Socrates to Bertrand Russell, passing though the thousands of namesand areas of human knowledge, if his cultural baggage does not include aworking knowledge of contemporary sciences in the fields of management,marketing and human resources, he will be unable to grasp the essence ofthese laws. In a way, he would be like a physicist who devotes fifty yearsof his life studying physics since the dawn of history with the exceptionof the last half century. Although he would in such case be wellacquainted with the history of the subject, what he knows belongs in amuseum of the past and is in no way suitable for the modern world.
Unfortunately a not inconsiderable number of Third Worldintellectuals are like our fictitious physicist: they know a great dealbut their knowledge does not extend to new areas. Not only that, but theseintellectuals continue to engage in lengthy debates in which they useobsolete terms of reference which confirm that they are living in thepast, and, consequently, unable to comprehend what is happening aroundthem. Indeed, these obsolete frames of reference stand as obstacles in theway of society’s ability to take the only means of transportation thatcan carry it to the desired destination, or, stated otherwise, its abilityto play the game according to the new rules of the game, not according toutopian rules that exist only in the minds of those who remain locked inthe past.
Having come this far in our analysis, we can proceed nofurther without addressing an issue that is inextricably linked to anydiscussion touching on the subject of conspiracies and the conspiracytheory, namely, the Japanese phenomenon. In a lecture delivered in Tokyoin December 1966, the author of this article credited Japan with playing avitally important role in his intellectual formation, explaining that itsexperience had convinced him that the conspiracy theory, whether imaginaryor real, was far less potent than it is made out to be. If one believes inconspiracies, then surely there could be no conspiracy more heinous thanthe two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For bydefinition a conspiracy seeks to inflict injury on the party against whomit is aimed, and there can be no greater injury than the atomicdevastation rained on Japan over half a century ago.
Japan’s refusal to remain locked in the spiral of defeatproves that even assuming a conspiracy does exist and that, moreover, itattains its full scope, which is the infliction of maximum damage on theparty against whom it is directed, the conspirators cannot achieve theirultimate aim unless the targeted victim accepts to be crushed. Japan hasrisen like a phoenix from the ashes of the atomic blasts to become themain rival of the very powers that seemed, in 1945, to have succeeded inbringing it to its knees.
The most important thing left to say about the unshakablebelief in the conspiracy theory that seems to have taken hold of the Arabmindset is that it denotes a complete denial of a number of fundamentalprinciples we must never lose sight of:
•It proceeds from the assumption that while theconspirators enjoy absolute freedom of action when it comes toexercising their will, the parties conspired against are totallydevoid of that prerogative. This endows the former with theattributes of motivation, determination, will and the ability tomake things happen while stripping the parties conspired against ofall these attributes, reducing them to objects rather than subjects,inanimate pawns moved every which on the chessboard of historyaccording to the whims of others.
• It denies the parties conspired against the qualityof nationalism while attributing it exclusively to the conspirators.
•It makes the conspirators legendary figures in theminds of those who consider themselves victims of conspiracies.
•It assumes that there is no way the partiesconspired against can foil the stratagems of the conspirators,making for a defeatist and passive attitude that runs counter topride and self-dignity and to the notion that nations, like men, canshape their own destiny.
All that I have written about the conspiracy theory wouldbe incomplete - as well as contrary to my beliefs - if the reader is leftwith the impression that, first, I believe that conspiracy and conflictare one and the same thing and that, accordingly, I do not believe thatconflict has been a constant
feature of human history; or, second, that I am denyingthat conspiracies too have always been a part of that history.
In fact, I am profoundly convinced that human history ismade up of a series of conflicts and that, moreover, the world stage todayis the setting for numerous bitter and major conflicts. But I believeconflict and conspiracy are two different notions.
Conflict means persistent efforts by given parties tomaintain whatever edge they enjoy over others, or even to expand that edgeand the privileges and advantages that go with it. But conflict also meansthat contradictions are played out in a game that proceeds according tocertain rules which differ from one era to the next, so that whoever wantsto achieve a position of any prominence must wage the conflict with thetools and according to the rules that will guarantee the optimal results.Here the Japanese model emerges once again as the most salient proof ofthe truth of this characterization. It goes without saying that conflictis a relatively more open game than conspiracy, and that the degree ofambiguity in which the game of conflict is shrouded (even those of itsfeatures that are so ambiguous as to appear closer to magic than anythingelse) is relatively less than that necessarily surrounding the conspiracygame. Placing matters in the context of a conflict game rather than withinthe parameters of a tight conspiracy that determines the course of historyencourages people to draw on their inner resources of pride, dignity anddetermination to enter the game as active participants bent on affectingits outcome to their advantage.
This is very different from the state of mind created by awidespread belief in the conspiracy theory as the driving force ofhistory, which encourages people to adopt a passive attitude in the beliefthat they have no choice but to bow to the inevitable, albeit with muchwringing of hands and loud complaints at the often disastrous resultscoming their way, rather than rise to the challenge by becoming activeplayers determined to achieve honourable results in the game, even if thecards are stacked against them.The experience of the Japanese, who havewaged one of the most ferocious conflicts in human history throughout thelast half century, stands as a testimonial to the triumph of the humanspirit in the face of great adversity. That is not in any way to implythat history
is devoid of conspiracies; indeed, the annals of humanhistory are rife with examples of plots and counterplots. What I am tryingto say, rather, is that history is not a general conspiracy but the stagefor a fierce and relentless struggle on which those who quietly acceptwhatever comes their way are relegated to the sidelines.
Finally, it is necessary to highlight here anotherdisastrous aspect of the rampant belief in the general conspiracy theory,which is that aspect related to undemocratic rulers like some of those nowin power in the Third World.
The undemocratic ruler contributes with his ideas,statements and information media to consecrating the belief in theconspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide hisown shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problemsand hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to theiraspirations, on outside elements, i.e. a general conspiracy, rather thanon the real reason, which is the absence of democracy and the existence ofrulers like himself who are usually not the most efficient, capable,honest and cultured members of the society these rulers represent.
The real challenge as I see it is not a global conspiracybut a global conflict, one that is ferocious, violent and dangerous, whichnations can only wage successfully if they are properly equipped for it.And they can only be equipped if their leaders are men of vision operatingin a climate of democracy through cadres characterized by a high degree ofefficiency, ability, honesty and culture. It is impossible to overrate theimportance of this last attribute, for without culture there can be novision.
In conclusion, it must be said that though the logic ofthe proponents of the conspiracy theory is based on a patriotic love ofcountry, and though I have absolutely no doubt that they are in factnationalists who want only the best for their country and people, the sadfact is that, in the final analysis, their absolute belief in theconspiracy theory renders them defeatists and advocates of the line ofleast resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspiredagainst without making a serious effort to do anything about it.