They're Out to Get Us
Conspiracy theories are getting a bum rap.
Cairo is a chattering city. It's a city where news still travels from house to house, and where every important event a ship sinking, the president's son getting engaged leads to an outpouring of jokes, gossip and conjectures. It's also a city where everyone has a theory. Cairenes consider themselves above banal, straightforward explanations. They prefer more imaginative, even convoluted, accounts.
In general, the arid Middle East has proved fertile ground for conspiracy theories. A great many of them are outlandish. The idea that 9/11 was carried out by Israeli and/or the American Secret Service has proved to have an unfortunate resonance. Israel, in particular, seems to have a reach in Middle Eastern affairs that is nothing short of astounding. I've heard the country blamed for everything from the Taba bombings in Egypt in the fall of 2004 in which dozens of Israeli tourists died to the cloud of locusts that swept across Cairo last winter.
But just because many conspiracy theories are false doesn't mean that conspiracies don't in fact take place. "Conspiracy theorist" has become synonymous with "loon"; a handy insult with which to dismiss those who disbelieve the official transcript. But I say conspiracy theories are getting a bum rap. Often, they're a not unintelligent response to unintelligible situations. In the Middle East, conspiracy theories are a natural reaction to opaque governments and deceitful state-owned media. They flourish in a region full of scheming rulers and cynical citizens-marked by endless coups, unstable political alliances, and foreign interventions and they are not always that far off the mark.
Two recent examples will suffice. When the Danish cartoon crisis ignited (see also Arabesque: The Big Picture), there was a story going around that a disgruntled Saudi businessman, who had failed to wrestle the concession of imported Danish food away from a competitor, was behind the calls for a boycott of Danish goods.
When bird flu hit Egypt a few weeks ago, there was a widespread panic. Rumour spread that farmers had thrown infected chickens in the Nile, and that tap water wasn't safe to drink. Another rumour spread that the government, as a preventive measure, had doubled the chlorine dose in the water, with the same result: tap water wasn't safe to drink. Stores ran out of bottled water. And as everyone called everyone they knew to pass this news on and check up on each other, some of the phone lines in Cairo went down. Even when government ministers drank tap water on TV, people remained sceptical.
Although it's impossible to find how if there's any truth to these theories, they're both based on assumptions which are hardly outlandish: that Saudi businessmen might be capable of manipulating religious sentiment to their advantage, or that the Egyptian authorities might screw something up and then lie to the public about it.
Foreigners who live here often end up catching the conspiracy bug themselves. I know several people who spend an unhealthy amount of time trolling the Internet for further evidence of the global plot against us all. They emerge from their apartments every now and then, a dazed look in their faces, eager to share the latest "eye-opening", low-budget documentary they've discovered.
Part of this is an atmospheric phenomenon. Gradually, as you live here, you begin mistrusting both local public officials and Western media sources on principle. Thus, you begin getting much of your information the same way as everyone else around you: from word of mouth. For lack of better alternatives, you enter a nebulous world of hearsay and guess-work.
Foreigners also undergo the traumatic experience of comparing what Western media and governments say is happening in the Middle East to what they actually witness when they live here. There is a particular loss of innocence that comes from watching US officials pass through Cairo and commend President Mubarak for his "wise leadership" and his "steps towards democracy", when one lives in a country that is falling apart out of sheer corrupt mismanagement; when one has seen female activists beaten and stripped in the street by government thugs, and voters kept from casting their ballots by lines of riot police.
The collision of American and Israeli rhetoric with the historical record and actual suffering of the Palestinian people also produces a consciousness-altering shock. When you discover that you have been deceived on one count, the effect can often be that of a house of cards falling. Everything becomes a potential fiction.
Of course the impulses behind conspiracy theories are numerous. Often, it's the natural desire to understand; to make sense of events that are confusing and terrifying and beyond our grasp. Sometimes it's a wish to avoid a troubling truth: When Middle Easterners blame outside forces for everything, they are often trying to ignore the crimes that Arabs and Muslims have committed against the West and each other, or the incompetence and duplicity of local governments. Sometimes it's sheer political manipulation: When the Khartoum government says the violence in Darfur is fomented by foreigners, and that a peace-keeping force will be used as an excuse for a foreign invasion of the country, they are shrouding their crimes against their own people in the cheapest alarmism and xenophobia.
The disheartening role that illiteracy, ignorance, and bigotry play in the perpetuation of rumors and theories also can't be ignored. There is "news" that is made up at the corner shop by people who don't know the difference between fact and fiction, and that panders to everyone's prejudices.
On the other hand, there is often a grain of truth to be found in each conspiracy theory. That's why even when such theories are fantastical, they have a certain appeal. Foreign powers have long ruled, invaded and meddled in the Middle East and hid their greed behind high moral arguments. The Egyptian mistrust of Israel harks back not only to military defeats, but to terrorism and espionage that Israel carried out in Egypt in the '50s. And we may want to consider how the CIA's activities across the developing world in the last 50 years have earned the agency a reputation of being capable of committing ultimate evil.
The founding principle of most conspiracy theories that people in power further their own interests, and lie to the rest of us about it is obvious to those of us with a little experience of the world. It's obvious if you're willing to abandon the reassuring delusion that those effectively in charge of your life truly care about your well-being.
Is the fact that the US government and media colluded to lead America into a war on false pretences, for example, a conspiracy theory? Is the idea that American desire to democratize the Middle East, while a suitably inspiring talking point, is considerably less important than our goal to control a part of the world with important oil reserves, a conspiracy theory?
The real problem with most conspiracy theories is that not enough thought has been put into them. They are either simplistic, blaming everything on a few ubiquitous villains, or they are too ambitious, wanting to connect every dot in history in order to create perfect, resounding narratives. In both cases, they are often long on emotion and short on facts: It takes a great intelligence and doggedness to unearth, in detail, the ways in which we are misled.
Thus, conspiracy theories often end up fulfilling the same function as religion or other ideologies: They make the world meaningful and comprehensible, and give one the sense that one is among the few elect who have "has seen the light", while others carry on in their mistakes.
If those who refuse to believe in conspiracies cling like children or cheerleaders to the idea that "our guys" could never do wrong, those who do believe in them cleave to the equally delusional notion that they are among the few to have discovered the blueprint for all the evil in the world.
That's why we should abandon conspiracy theories for a more thorough "theory of conspiracy". The truth is that we are often taken advantage of, duped and oppressed by those in power, but it is a complex and opportunistic process. There is no need to involve the Masons, the Jews, or the Illuminati in all this. The various, daily skulduggery of governments and corporations will suffice.