The Hidden Hand
Conspiracy theories induce a sense of hopelessness. The enemy looms larger than life, demonic, massively competent, and forever plotting; in contrast, the conspiracy theorist underestimates his own power. The Arabs' instinct after 1967, British journalist Michael Field writes,was most often to turn to the West and say, in effect, 'we can do nothing, you have put us in this position, now you have to help us, the solution is in your hands.' In a sense this position was reasonable, given that the Arabs had failed to defeat Israel in battle and that Israel's willingness to make concessions depended partly on America's willingness to put pressure on it. Yet the Arabs themselves did little diplomatically to make Western governments and public opinion want to help them....the Arabs did not appreciate their own diplomatic and economic potential, except in crude confrontational terms, and overestimated the power of Western governments to put pressure on a country such as Israel without their electorates being fully behind the policy.The emphasis on a foreign conspirator leads to passivity in another way: letting one's own government off the hook. Poverty and repression seem more overwhelming when they come from a distant capital. The conspiracy mentality makes it harder to face up to reality and deal with it. Lost wars, economic poverty, and medical backwardness are the West's fault. This climate of illusion prompts journalists, academics, and rulers to ignore actual circumstances in favor of imaginary constructions. To the extent that Arabs see Israel's strength based on clandestine international support, for example, Arab military success remains elusive.
The more a government accepts conspiracy theories, the more deadly and aggressive its actions. Verbal violence, however cliched, does contribute to the volatility and turbulence of Middle East politics. Whenever paranoia drives politics, the urges of extremists vanquish those of centrists. Normal ambitions disappear, replaced by fevered drives to dominate and fears of domination. Diplomatic flexibility falls victim to these fears. To the despair of foreign diplomats, Middle Eastern leaders adopt intensely negative attitudes, due in part to their ceaseless worry about being duped by malevolent outsiders. The accusation of plots incalculably increases fears of Jews and Christians in the general population.
Conspiracism makes it very difficult for Middle Easterners with common interests to work together. Fundamentalists accuse Pan-Arab nationalists of introducing new divisions to turn Muslim against Muslim, thereby doing the imperialists' work. The Egyptian nationalist Mustafa Kamil, for example, is often portrayed as a British agent. The Arab-Israeli conflict offers many instances of this pattern. Despite a shared hostility of Israel among some 20 states and uncounted organizations, they only rarely cooperate; most of the time, conspiratorial suspicions get in the way. One example: Salah Khalaf of the PLO argued that Arab public opinion strongly favors the Palestinian cause, and this pressures Arab governments to mouth pro-PLO statements. At the same time, those governments fear the consequences of a Palestinian victory and so clandestinely undermine the Palestinians by helping their enemies.
Conspiracism engenders a suspiciousness and aggressiveness that spoil relations with the great powers. Blaming the United Kingdom and the United States for much more than the facts warrant stimulates deep animosities. And those who blame all their problems on Britons and Americans then begin terrorizing airplane passengers and abducting college teachers. The paranoid style, Field explains,is obviously linked to the theorists' general ignorance of the outside world, and this is clearly a disadvantage for any society. The belief in plots, combined with ignorance, leads the Arabs to exaggerate the power of the West and misjudge its motives, making them believe that it is hostile and manipulative when it is more likely to be morally censorious, occasionally concerned with upholding states' sovereignty and/or protecting its oil interests, generally interested in promoting its exports, and often indifferent to Arab issues—or concerned but unable to see how it can influence events.Conspiratorial anti-Semitism and overwrought fears of Israeli expansionism perpetuate the Arab-Israeli confrontation. For one, suspicion of a covert alliance with Israel prompts rulers to compensate by becoming more anti-Zionist. Because the Sunni Muslim majority of Syria believes in an 'Alawi-Zionist tie, Hafiz al-Asad (the Syrian president of 'Alawi origins) for many years responded by adopting an implacably anti-Israel policy, more hostile than that of most Sunnis.
Second, fears of a grand Zionist plot implies that Israel lacks ordinary state interests, and this discourages diplomacy. Israel might be seen as intent on building a Greater Israel or as the great puppeteer deciding what Western states should do. In either case, conspiracy theorists have built Israel into something so large and monstrous, they cannot imagine making peace with it. Israel becomes too large to fit the Middle East and too threatening to accommodate.
Third, conspiracy theories enlarge the conflict. They explain, for example, why fundamentalist Muslims bombed an innocuous Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing nearly 100 persons. As Martin Kramer explains, this 'was no mistake' but resulted from their being 'in thrall to the idea that Jews everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to destroy Islam.' Fundamentalists end up making war against Jews everywhere. Conspiracy theories also worsen relations with the United States and Britain; seen as 'full partners' of Israel's crimes, they have to be fought with 'the same level of hostility.'
Fourth, and quite the reverse, seeing Israel as a pawn of the United States encourages Muslims to ignore decisions made in Jerusalem. If Israel is nothing but an instrument of U.S. power, then why deal with it? Leonid Brezhnev expressed his surprise to an Arab delegation in July 1967 that it would talk to the Americans but not to Israel ('Israel is not enslaving you but America can'); President Houari Boumedienne of Algeria replied vehemently: 'Your words are incomprehensible and ambiguous....Israel is not the problem because Israel is in the hands of the Americans.' This mistaken view has blighted Arab-Israeli diplomacy for years.
The specter of conspiracy delegitimates political adversaries, and so rules out many of those features—freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and elections—that constitute civil society. A climate of suspicion among the ruling class prompts mistrust and governmental repression, rendering freedom of expression out of the question. If dissent signals the ugly head of foreign intervention, deviance from the official line must be suppressed. Dictators fearing conspiracies interpret even the meekest attempts to assert an alternate center of power as a sign of treachery and repress it with all their might. The concept of a loyal opposition evaporates when one's opponent is suspect of serving as an agent for malevolent external powers. Conspiracy theorists tend 'to equate competition with treason, liberalism with weak-mindedness, honest differences of opinion with divisive alien conspiracies, and political toleration with permissiveness toward the enemy within.' In this overwrought atmosphere, political opponents cannot be tolerated; they must be, and often are, killed. If disagreement suggests treachery, meaningful elections cannot take place. Thus do conspiracy theories drive moderation out of Arab and Iranian public life.
Seeing multinational corporations as thieves and foreign investors as saboteurs stunts economic development. It is even less helpful if the middle class is seen as a creature of the imperialists, artificially built up to have a stake in the status quo and to keep revolutions from succeeding. If foreign investment aims to prevent Muslims from achieving self-sufficiency, how will industrialization take place? If foreign visitors are spies, how can normal relations with the outside world exist?
When the Jordanian government attempted to curb the country's very high birth rate, a fundamentalist leader in parliament denounced contraception as 'a conspiracy serving Zionist plans to deprive Arab lands...of much needed manpower.' If oral contraceptives are part of a plot to reduce the number of Muslims, how will Jordan contain its population? If encouraging condoms is really a subtle form of genocide, how will the AIDS virus be stopped?
Ultimately, conspiracy theories obstruct modernization itself. If 'modernization is another conspiracy of the West,' Europe's strength appears not to derive not from its own creativity and energy but from deception and trickery. Many Middle Easterners agree with Khomeini that the West stole its accomplishments from the Muslims, a sentiment that obviously gets in the way of respecting or emulating the West. If Europe got where it did merely through chicanery, Muslims have very little to learn from Western civilization; mostly they should avoid it. Seeing European influence as a form of sabotage, fundamentalist Muslims portray Western culture as corrupt; many (including Khomeini) even portray it as a conspiracy against Islam. This in turn prevents them from achieving the advancement they crave.