- Conspiracy Mania
Was Princess Diana killed by the British Secret Service to prevent her from marrying Dodi Al-Fayed, the son of Egyptian-born multi-millionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed? Was there a conspiracy organized by British intelligence, perhaps in league with the French and Israelis, to stop a Muslim from infiltrating the British Royal family? Did the Royal family, maybe even the Queen herself, instigate this plot against “the people’s Princess” and her Muslim lover? Although the idea of Queen Elizabeth II masterminding some vast international conspiracy against her erstwhile daughter-in-law would seem utterly preposterous to most of us, to many in the Middle East it appears far less incredible, in fact, even quite likely.
The reasons for this, and for the general propensity to subscribe to conspiracy theories in the Middle East, is the subject of Daniel Pipes’ book The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy. The book is the first full-length study of conspiracy theories in the Middle East, and the author’s self-declared aim from the outset of The Hidden Hand is to fill an important gap in the Western world’s understanding of Middle Eastern political culture: “Whoever hopes to understand the Middle East must recognize the distorting lens of conspiracy theories, understand them, make allowance for them, and perhaps even plan around them. Conspiracism provides a key to understanding the political culture of the Middle East.” It is necessary to recognize this aspect of Middle Eastern political culture, according to Pipes, because the prevalence [End Page 267] of conspiracy theories there is responsible, directly or indirectly, for many of the region’s problems. Pipes holds conspiracy theories, and the attitudes they reveal, at least partly accountable for the Middle East’s stunted modernization, political extremism, violence, and authoritarianism. In short, according to Pipes, conspiracism is a pervasive and pernicious influence upon the political culture of the Middle East. The book succeeds in the task of illuminating an aspect of the Middle East’s political culture that clearly has been ignored for too long. By the book’s conclusion, the popularity of conspiracy theories in the region appears at once more understandable and disturbing. The Hidden Hand will be of interest to anyone seeking a greater comprehension of this region, as well as to those fascinated by the conspiratorial mind.
Pipes provides an exhaustive list of widely-believed conspiracy theories, together with an examination of their political utility and psychological resonance. The theories chronicled range from the bizarre to the mundane, covering almost every aspect of the region’s life, history, and politics. In many of the cases cited, the conspirators are either Zionists (automatically equated with Jews) or imperialists (generally equated with the British and/or Americans) or both together. Some of the theories mentioned are sinister and troubling, while others are perplexing, and some are outright comical. One striking example is a prominent Iranian Ayatollah’s depiction of drinking Coca-Cola as a “multilateral contribution to evil” because Washington was helping the Zionist cause through its sale. The Islamic Republic later banned the drink. A second example is the demand by Hizbullah, a Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist group, that Michael Jackson and Madonna be brought to trial in Pakistan for “ruining the lives of thousands of Muslims and leading them to destruction, away from the religion, ethics and morality.”
Despite their often far-fetched and incredulous character, Pipes explains that such theories should not be summarily dismissed as simply the products of over-ripe imaginations or the musings of crazed fanatics. Pipes argues that in the Middle East, with the notable exceptions of Turkey and Israel, such theories are the stock-in-trade of politicians, journalists, and even scholars, enjoying a widespread, mainstream audience, whereas in the West, conspiracism is the preserve of fringe groups and the alienated (and certain Hollywood directors). “The fear of conspiracy,” Pipes writes, “serves as the ubiquitous currency of Middle East political rhetoric.” To indicate his point, Pipes claims that perhaps one-third of the Muslim world interpreted...