WHEN MUSLIM GIRLS of Upper Egypt not long ago discovered what was said to be the sign of the cross on their veils, alarm spread throughout the country. A Cairo newspaper described the two principal explanations making the rounds:
Some people said that Christians had sprayed a chemical on the veiled women’s clothes and this material assumed the form of a small cross no larger than an ant; as soon as the clothing was moistened, the size of the cross would increase to about three centimeters. Some people offered another interpretation, which held that the cloth of the head covering had been imported from Israel and that it was scientifically treated to form crosses with the purpose of stirring up dissension between Muslims and Christians.
Bizarre as such an episode may seem to many in the West, it is hardly so by the standards of the Middle East, where the idea of topsy-turvy international conspiracy permeates political thinking and influences the course of events. Welcome to a world in which Libya’s Muammar Qaddah is deemed by Baghdad radio to be “subservient” to the United States and Israel, in which a Saudi Arabian king holds that Zionists are behind the Palestinian terrorists, in which Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is denounced by an Egyptian newspaper as a crypto-Jew, a donme, the argument being that he imposed secularism on his Muslim country to punish the Turks for not ceding Palestine to the Jews. When the Jordanian charge d’affaires disappeared in Beirut in 1981, Syria pointed the finger at. . . Jordan.Jordan, according to Radio Damascus, “has an interest in the kidnapping incident and in exploiting it to deceive public opinion and divert the attention of the Jordanian people from what is taking place in Jordan.” In 1986 a newspaper in Bahrain called the recent incident in which a TWA airliner was blown up by hijackers ‟the clearest example of the West’s enmity to the Arabs.”
These are not isolated examples. A belief in the existence of malevolent conspiracies suffuses Middle Eastern discourse. And yet, as one specialist on the region, L. Carl Brown, noted a few years ago, “this pervasive Middle Eastern attitude has rarely been studied in a systematic way.” Such neglect is probably a mistake. The search for the hidden hand closely reflects the trauma of the modern Middle East.
AMONG ARABS, THE inability to destroy tiny Israel has prompted the belief that sinister forces must be backing the Jewish state. While some Arab commentators have made serious critiques of the military defeats, especially after the setbacks the Arabs suffered in 1948 and 1967, most governments and writers prefer to ignore actual circumstances and blame outside powers to explain their losses.
One theory holds that the West perpetuates the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way to control the Middle East. Just after the 1973 war an Arab Jerusalemite explained to an Israeli journalist, “The Americans arrange everything. In ‘56 they sent the British and the French to wallop Egypt, and in ‘67 they helped you beat the Egyptians and the Syrians. Today you have a very big country, and the Americans felt you should be cut down to size. So they decided to help the Egyptians beat you.”
The prominent Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi took an even more extreme view. In the 1970s, when oil producers were in the midst of boom times, he declared: “It is obvious. Oil is power, Cash is power. I say God help America and Europe when we unite with the Jews. Then we can really run the show. You could wake up one morning and find yourself occupied by an Arab-Israeli nation.”
A second theory about the origins of the Middle East conflict involves Soviet-American collusion to use the threat of Israel as a way of creating a market for weapons in the Arab states. A third theory, based on the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, posits a Jewish plot to use Israel as a base for taking control of the entire world. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia for over half a century vehemently maintained the truth of the Protocols, distributing them far and wide. He asserted that “Zionism is the mother of Communism. . . . It’s all part of a great plot, a grand conspiracy. Communism ... is a Zionist creation designed to fulfill the aims of Zionism. They are only pretending to work against each other.” According to Richard Nixon, “Faisal saw Zionist and Communist conspiracies everywhere around him.”
The most notable consequence of Faisal’s unwillingness to accept facts at face value came in 1969. On August 21 of that year a deranged Australian Christian by the name of Rohan (which the Saudis turned into Cohen) set fire to the Mosque of al-Aqsa, the holiest Islamic shrine in Jerusalem. Though the Israelis extinguished the fire quickly and Rohan confessed, Faisal was convinced that Jews had caused the incident. More remarkable, he was able to mobilize virtually every Muslim head of state to accept this view, and thereby achieved his longsought dream—the first-ever summit meeting of Muslim leaders, including even some of the most radical ones.
Needless to say, many Arabs see Israeli agents and strategic thinking in every corner. When the Israeli government miscalculated in 1976 and took steps that enhanced the PLO’s standing on the West Bank, pro-Jordanian elements suspected a deliberate Israeli maneuver; the PLO’s advance meant that Jerusalem could plausibly argue it had no negotiating partner on the West Bank. The best newspaper in Egypt, al-Ahram, speculated in May of 1983 that Israeli agents were behind the Hitler-diaries hoax in Germany. Why would Israel do this? Because the hoax reminded the world of the Jews’ persecution and diverted “the world’s attention from the tragedy that Israel is inflicting on the Arabs.”
IRAN IS PROBABLY the country where the conspiratorial imagination has evolved to its most advanced state. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, who ruled from 1941 to 1979, often succumbed to this way of thinking, as he made abundantly clear in his autobiography, Answer to History. The Shah interpreted his spectacular downfall as a result of an “unholy alliance of Red and Black”—of Marxists and mullahs. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as a political leader in June of 1963 owing to “secret dealings with foreign agents.” Indeed, Khomeini owed his title of ayatollah to “radio stations run by atheist émigrés belonging to the Tudeh [Iranian Communist] Party.” Four other actors also participated in the plot against the Shah: the media, the major oil companies, and the British and American governments. Central Intelligence Agency involvement probably had begun by 1962, when the Shah, visiting San Francisco, saw an airplane streamer overhead with the slogan “Need a fix, see the Shah.”
As the demonstrations against him mounted, the Shah continued to think them the work of a mischievous element—and that “popular support for the crown ran strong and deep.” By making it easy to hide from unpleasant facts, conspiracy theories encouraged him to underestimate the strength of the opposition, contributing to his misreading of the situation and, therefore, to his fall.
Years after the Shah’s fall and death, his supporters continue to think along these lines. Gary Sick, who was a member of the National Security Council staff during the hostage crisis, relates his experience with the many “sophisticated, well-educated Iranians whose inevitable question would be, ‘Why did the United States want to bring Khomeini to power?’” Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s sister, subscribed to this outlook. She once explained why:
It happened the same thing with my father. It happened the same thing with my brother. There are foreigners who saw that Iran was becoming very important. . . and Iran in ten years’ time would be another Japan. They couldn’t afford another Japan in Asia.
The Shah’s opposition thought along similar lines, and this made for some strange intersections, Take a single incident—the demonstrations that met the Shah when he visited Washington in November of 1977. Antiand pro-Shah marchers confronted one another near the White House, at first verbally, then physically. To separate battling Iranians on the Ellipse, the police resorted to tear gas, some of which wafted over to the White House lawn, where, at that very moment, President Jimmy Carter was welcoming the Shah to the United States. The ceremonies had to be completed between fits of coughing, and pictures in the media showed the leaders wiping tears from their eyes.
The Shah charged that his opponents wore masks not, as they claimed, for protection against SAVAK, his secret police, but because “the masks hid nonIranian demonstrators—professional troublemakers hired on the spot. . . . Most of them were young Americans— blonds, blacks, Puerto Ricans, together with some Arabs. Moreover, there was foreign money involved in paying their bills.” As for the opposition view, one leader later observed that “when the dissidents learned of the tear-gas incident on the White House lawn, they reasoned that such an event could have occurred only at the President’s behest. Thus they quickly concluded that Carter had abandoned the Shah and launched a series of protest demonstrations and meetings [in Iran].” American officials entirely missed the connection between the ceremony in Washington and the disturbances in Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran may be unique in having a constitution that mentions conspiracies, which it does twice. The preamble refers to the White Revolution (the Shah’s land-reform program) as an “American plot ... a ploy to stabilize the foundations of the colonialist government [of the Shah] and strengthen Iran’s . . . ties with world imperialism.” A second reference promises good treatment of non-Muslim Iranians as long as they “do not get involved ... in conspiracies hatched against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Conspiracies are essential to the routine of daily politics, too. Here, from Prime Minister Mir Husayn Musavi, is the sort of statement that keeps reappearing in speeches by Iranian politicians: “The history of the nation’s steadfastness in the face of conspiracies both great and small by the sworn enemies of the revolution has made it easier for us to resist and withstand all devious and extensive conspiracies.” One reason for the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran was to ferret out the “den of espionage” controlling all these activities; but some Iranians who opposed the takeover argued that even it was part of a conspiracy. They held that Washington had arranged for the seizure of its own diplomats as hostages to isolate Iran internationally.
Iranians are not above discerning foreign influences on a more mundane level, as exemplified in this New York Times dispatch:
A Teheran taxi driver explained that he thought the city’s notorious traffic jams were the handiwork of American agents. “They get people to do unnecessary things and make the drivers frustrated and lose their temper,” he said.
It should come as no surprise that Ayatollah Khomeini’s recent campaign against Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses was premised on fears of an American conspiracy. Although Rushdie has nothing to do with the United States—he is a Muslim of Indian origin living in England—the Iranian government called his book a “provocative American deed” and dubbed him “an inferior CIA agent.” Another account asserted that The Satanic Verses was published at the request of the British intelligence services.
Even more recently a bomb destroyed a car belonging to the captain of the U.S. naval ship that eight months earlier had shot down an Iranian civilian jetliner. Tehran’s media characterized the incident, for which most observers blamed Iran, as an FBI plot to “demonize” the Islamic Republic.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES are hardly unique to the Muslim Middle East; they exist wherever public life is under stress. Nazi ideology relied heavily on this way of thinking, as did the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin. In the United States, too, a tradition of conspiratorial thinking goes back generations. What distinguishes the Middle East from these other examples is the mainstream quality of arguments about conspiracies. In the West conspiracy theories are the hallmark of the fringe; in the Middle East they are espoused by the foremost politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals, and journalists.
Though in some ways amusing, conspiracy theories are a deadly serious phenomenon. At the most general level, not confronting realities means not facing critical problems, much less solving them. If oral contraceptives are part of a plot to reduce the number of Muslims, how will Egypt contain its population? If foreign investment is intended to prevent Muslims from achieving self-sufficiency, industrialization will suffer. If foreign visitors are spies, relations with the outside world must be severely restricted. How can the concept of loyal opposition survive the suspicion that one’s opponent is actually an agent for a great and malevolent power? In the Muslim world, it generally does not.
Conspiracies also spawn their own form of political discourse, complete in itself and immune to rational argument. A devoted conspiracy theorist is like the caricature of a Freudian who can find a psychoanalytic explanation for anything, no matter how implausible. Both operate in a closed system.
Finally, as suggested by many of the examples here, the mentality of intrigue has time and again affected the specific course of politics in the. Middle East. The distorting prism of conspiracy theories that colors life in much of the Muslim Middle East cannot be dismissed as a curiosity, for it is a key feature of the region’s political culture. The conspiracy transforms accidental into volitional, benign into malevolent, and weak into powerful. Rumors, whispers, cabals, plots, and devils proliferate, and they count.