Monday, January 31, 2011

Conspiracy Theories, Anti-Semitism and the Parable of the Shark

Alexander Joffe
Hudson New York
January 31, 2011 at 4:00 am

After a series of attacks in Egypt, one of which killed a German tourist, the Egyptian Governor of South Sinai, Muhammad Abdel Fadil Shousha, suggested, "What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark [in the sea] to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question, but it needs time to be confirmed." Other explanations, such as overfishing forcing sharks into new waters, and dumping animal carcasses from freighters, have also been proposed; but Israeli sharks were the most extensively discussed, not least of all by Western observers. Red Sea sharks are now, for their crimes, being hunted and killed.

Most observers dismissed the shark accusation as merely the latest in a seemingly endless stream of conspiracy theories that flow from, and appear to animate, the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Far deadlier than the shark attacks was the New Year's bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria -- resulting in a stream of accusations from Islamists that Israel, the United States and others were responsible. As Lebanon's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani put it: "This not an individual internal Egyptian act, but a criminal act with Zionist... finger prints that want to sow hatred among Muslims and Coptic Christians." Apparently, neither animals nor humans can escape the machinations of the Jews.

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, "facts" are well known: no Jews were killed on 9/11; Israelis distributed aphrodisiac chewing gum to sexually overstimulate Arab youth in Gaza; Pepsi stands for "Pay Every Penny to Save Israel," and that the stripes on the Israeli flag stand for the Nile and the Euphrates. Although the popularity of the Elders of the Protocols of Zion and Mein Kampf in the marketplaces of Damascus and Aleppo is further evidence, simply to dismiss this as "conspiracy theories" is to miss their true role in Arab and Muslim societies.

The predilection for "conspiracy theories" is often considered a by-product of marginal or alienated groups, who, it is claimed, generate these theories to provide a more satisfying explanation of their own straits. Writing from Beirut, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, for example, suggests that the phenomenon is a manifestation of the "captive Arab mind," evidence that the Middle East is not "ready to exchange conspiratorial victimhood for self-empowerment." Cohen's misreading of Czeslaw Milosz is perverse: what Milosz describes in Communist Eastern Europe is repression imposed from above, backed up by instruments of the state.

Another approach suggests, conversely, that official conspiracy theories provide a useful distraction from crumbling states and ideologies for their oppressed masses.

The truth, however, is that both top-down and bottom-up explanations work in tandem: in authoritarian, tyrannical or failed societies, nearly everyone is marginal and alienated. Neither explanation, however, tries to distinguish conspiracism from plain anti-Semitism.

Especially in the West, the entertainment-value of conspiracy theories meshes usefully with yearnings for deeper truths, which are assumed to be more colorful and more profound. Conclusions abound, therefore, that evidence is being withheld by dark forces, usually the "government." In the West, however, Jews are usually absent from these fantasy world, or at best play only a supporting role.

Although the desire for colorful explanations is understandable, the health of a society as a whole can also be at least partially gauged by the degree to which discourse and policy are based on these "facts" as opposed to real facts. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, for example, Bret Stephens takes note of the Alexandria church bombing to paint a dark picture of Egyptian society, where mad fantasies seem barely restrained; one wonders what idea of democracy the people demonstrating there now have, let alone if democracy is what they will get. The Internet has also helped conspiracy theories to circulate faster and deeper.

Why, though, are societies such as Russia hotbeds of conspiracy theories of anti-Semitic nature? Is it, as Cohen claims, that that "conspiracy" is "the ultimate refuge of the powerless"? Why then are Jews the frequent if not perennial targets? Why does anti-Semitism seem to be the Grand Unifying Theory of explanations?

In societies where there is little or no rule of law, and little information -- other than anti-Semitism -- provided by the press, conspiracy theories are induced to emerge. Tribes, families and other groups try protect themselves from perceived threats spun from fragmentary or skewed information, and that can produce paranoid conclusions. In societies without rule of law, equality under the law, or explicit reciprocal obligations of the rulers and the ruled, suspicion necessarily, and perhaps, correctly dominates.

This is no less true for the rulers than the ruled. Iranian leaders seem heartfelt in their belief that Israel and Jews worldwide are conspiring against them. These are not specific answers to specific questions, such as, "Are there UFOs?" but manifestations of either a larger preexisting worldview or a cynical ploy to divert hate.

Conspiracy theories usually require a superficial appearance of logic that vanishes upon closer -- and certainly upon scientific -- examination. Iranian media took a routine meeting in 2006 between Pope Benedict XVI and Henry Kissinger and turned it into a "Papal-Jewish conspiracy." The creation of Tom and Jerry was not, as an Iranian cultural official alleged, intended to erase the Nazi image of Jews as "dirty mice." No sign is too small not to be fitted somehow into an anti-Semitic worldview.

Every time an Iranian nuclear scientist is blown up, perceptions of threats are confirmed. In wartime, generating paranoia is an effective offensive weapon. Paranoia, the flip side of conspiracism, is also an effective tool of social manipulation. But does this explain the paranoia of Hamas – or anyone else - regarding a global Jewish conspiracy?

Strip away the bizarre rants about the Elders of Zion from Hamas, and one is left with an intelligible paranoia about the effect of modernity on Islam, and the patriarchal, theological, authoritarian society to which Islam has almost everywhere become accustomed.

As the Hamas Charter of 1988 states, since "Islam has waned away from the reality of life… the checks and balances have been upset, concepts have become confused, and values have been transformed; evil has prevailed, oppression and obscurity have reigned; cowards have turned tigers, homelands have been usurped, people have been uprooted and are wandering all over the globe." Hamas's Muslim theology cannot accept a world where Islam does not rule, and where Jews exercise sovereignty in their own state -- nor can that of the Muslim Brotherhood, Osama bin Laden, or Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad.

Closer to home, the right of women to control their own body also challenges patriarchal authority. This is just as true in Manchester as in Kandahar, and seems to have produced, at least in Gaza, theories regarding aphrodisiac chewing gum, which may ludicrous to people in the West, but may be unquestioningly believed by the citizens of Gaza, and which dangerously produce continued violence against women.

Although loss of male power is not a theological issue, threats to male power undermine the co-dependent relationship of Islam, and what historian David Hollinger has called "patriarchal, theological and authoritarian" culture. Such threats might actually come from liberal reformers preaching "human rights," but are more conveniently assigned to the familiar figure of Jews. This is no longer conspiracism, but classic anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism has particular antiquity in the Middle East precisely as a means of wartime propaganda derived from religious traditions. The "perfidy" of Jews is well known in the New Testament's Book of John: "I know that you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word" (8:37), as well as in the Qur'an: "And because of their breaking their covenant, we have cursed them and made hard their hearts. They change words from their context and forget a part of that whereof they were admonished. Thou wilt not cease to discover treachery from all save a few of them" (Qur'an 5:13).

With respect to Jews and Christians, the Muslim notion of Islamic supremacy -- that the later faith completes and supersedes the earlier faiths -- endures. Wartime propaganda, even from wars fought long ago, forms a legacy of accusation and hatred though which reality is still refracted. This legacy of anti-Semitism -- moderated in Europe partly by a combination of the Enlightenment, science and the philosophical elevation of the individual over the group -- continues to persist in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

In patriarchal, theological and authoritarian societies, secrecy and suspicion only serve compound theological distortions. Science, as it is founded on repeatable observations of a single reality, is one of the greatest threats to religion.

Theories about "Jewish conspiracies" also have resonance when used as accusations against the "successful," the "failed," and where the majority accuse the minority of whatever is the grievance of the day. In addition, envy of the seeming ability of Jews to survive, whether during capitalism, socialism, science, media, and even wars to destroy them, contributes to anti-Semitism.

The Red Sea sharks being trained to attack tourists off the Sinai Peninsula are just the latest conspiracy theory in a long tradition: Boars were supposedly sent by "settlers" to destroy West Bank crops; the Indian Ocean Tsunami was supposedly caused by secret Israeli nuclear tests; and recently, in Saudi Arabia, even a supposed "spy" bird was captured (and, mercifully, since released).

But if the "international Jewish conspiracy" is easy to see as a manifestation of anti-Semitism, what about the "Jewish lobby"? Is that a "conspiracy," too -- or something larger? To say there is an "Israel lobby" is self-evident: of course there is, just as there is a forceful, if unofficial, "Arab lobby," a retirees' lobby, and a gun lobby. But to ascribe to the Israel lobby powers it does not have constitutes anti-Semitism. If there are allegations that are outlandish and sinister, special weird exceptions drawn only for Israel and its supporters, then the line is crossed.

Conspiracy theories cannot be defeated; only contained: conspiracy theorists have a deep psychic investment in their worldview, resistant to the truth. Anti-Semitism is a deep pathology for which there are still no solutions beyond the open society, founded on liberty, pluralism and tolerance. As Jews have learned, such counter-realities are profoundly dangerous: as governments, rule of law and constitutionalism are crumbling around the world. this is also a lesson for Western democracies at large: sharks and other predators are circling there as well.

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