"Geesi dhereb kuma jiro"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Islamic nations, conspiracy theories trump eyewitnesses

Pakistan has been beset by suicide bombing attacks almost constantly for months now. Terrorists viciously attack schools, funerals, weddings, mosques, market places, as well as military and police barracks. Their aim is to do as much damage as they can to Pakistanis, particularly to women and children in marketplaces, and they take credit for these acts.

You would think that the Pakistani public would be outraged, would recognize that they have a vicious internal enemy, and would want them crushed. But that’s not so for large sectors of the public – regrettably, those most educated and supposedly most worldly.

Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek editor and CNN news-interview host, was uncharacteristically rattled when he sent reporters out to ask primarily English speaking Pakistanis (educated and elite) how they felt about these attacks. Almost every one said they didn’t believe that al Qaeda or Taliban did them, despite those groups taking credit for the mayhem. Instead, they believed that the attacks were done by Israelis and the CIA in an attempt to “blacken Islam.”

Zakria was obviously flummoxed by this survey. For me, this was not as much of a surprise. The “Hidden Hand,” the notion that nothing happens in one’s life that is not the result of a conspiracy perpetrated by someone more powerful, is firmly believed (despite any evidence to the contrary) by people who come from authoritarian cultures. They become accustomed to the idea that their own government officials lie, that there is no “official” truth, and that they are victims of the powerful.

Even in Western countries with an open press and accountable leadership, there are fringes that never believe an official report. We still have our own 9/11 conspiracy true believers, as well as Holocaust deniers, who are among most resistant to facts. They are bosom buddies of the flat earth society and those who believe that the NASA moon landing was a film done in a Hollywood back lot.

In the 1920s, a widely published document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, (claiming that a great Jewish conspiracy runs the world), was investigated and found to be a fiction published by the Russian Secret Police. This has not daunted true believers – such as the Egyptian and Saudi governments, who print it and produced a TV docudrama about it.

People who consider themselves “victims” cannot think their way through events with logical conclusions. They cannot believe that conspiracies are the most difficult things to pull off, that someone always talks, nor can they believe that those in power are not out to get them.

As bad as Pakistan is, Iran may be even worse – and has been for centuries. The very origins of their version of Islam (Shia) is based on the belief that a conspiracy prevented their candidate for Caliph 1,500 years ago from having his rightful place – and they have never gotten over it.

Centuries of nasty governance have locked in place the notion that truth is never official; the rumor mill – often promoting the most colorful fantasies – is alive and well in Iran. Furthermore, even officials themselves buy into such fantasies. The late Shah of Iran believed that the BBC was a branch of the British security apparatus and he could not be convinced that the British press is independent.

Iran’s present day leaders (the theocracy) promote the notion that nothing happens in Iran without the secret hand of the CIA or Mosad. That would be a surprise to the university students bleeding in the streets. The students know who the enemy is; they march with Iranian flags with the symbol of the Islamic Republic deleted and shout “death to the dictator.” Good start.

Somali students are showing surprising courage. They demonstrated in December against the Somali al Qaeda, whose latest outrage was a suicide attack by a terrorist disguised in a woman’s burka! How amazing that Somalis should recognize suicide murderers for who they are and not blame it on CIA or Mosad. This is a surprise – and perhaps it represents a beginning.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman

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