From Kissinger to Clinton, conspiracy theories flourish in Lebanon

Samir Manssour has gone on a wild-goose chase in his latest column to validate a conspiracy theory that the United States is behind ISIS

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Exploring the roots of terrorism, the tribal history and sociopolitical context associated with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may no longer be necessary in some quarters in Lebanon. One Lebanese journalist has uncovered the ISIS mystery using one name: Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State whom he claims has confessed that Washington founded the terrorist organization ISIS, the same one it is bombing in Iraq today.

Samir Manssour of Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper has gone on a wild-goose chase in his latest column to validate a conspiracy theory that the United States is behind ISIS. His evidence is a Facebook post in Arabic allegedly quoting Clinton’s latest book “Hard Choices”, admitting to "establishing ISIS on July 5, 2013" and after visiting 112 countries. The book, reviewed digitally by Al-Arabiya News, makes no mention whatsoever that the U.S. created ISIS. Not only does the passage the author copied from Facebook not exist in book, Clinton goes as far as faulting President Barack Obama for not doing more in Syria to combat ISIS.

Samir Mansour interview MTV YouTube still
Samir Mansour interview MTV YouTube still

This fact, however, did not stop Manssour’s article from going viral in Lebanon, even after the U.S. embassy in Beirut issued a statement denying the fabrications. According to the BBC, the rumor “also prompted the Lebanese foreign ministry to summon U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale.”

Shabby Journalism

The Annahar story “is a perfect example of what could happen when shabby journalism is combined with social media” says Kim Ghattas, BBC correspondent in Washington and author of “The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart
of American Power.” The printing and reprinting of the report ignored “the first rule of journalism: fact checking” says Ghattas, adding that “anyone who had bothered to read the book [Hard Choices] would have quickly realized that none of this was in it.”

But beyond the ethics of journalism, the wide circulation of the claim by numerous Arab online and print outlets, speaks of a tendency in Lebanon and the Arab world to lend credibility to conspiracy theories, even when lacking factual context.

“Since I was a young boy and even before the war in 1975, conspiracy theories were common,” says veteran Lebanese journalist Michael Young. He recalls one theory about the “Kissinger plan” in reference to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1973-1977) circulating in Beirut during the war. Young describes the Kissinger theory as “a plan to empty the country of its Christians, and send them by sea outside Lebanon.” It was in the minds of the political elite as well as the average Beiruti, even though there was little evidence behind it.

Other conspiracy theories spoke of partitioning the country or settling the Palestinian refugees or spreading wild rumors on assassinations plots. This trajectory reflects, in Young’s opinion, the readiness in Lebanon and the region “to always see the Middle East as acted upon by an outside power.” Before the Lebanese war in 1975, another conspiracy theory of a “master plan to break up the Middle East into mini states in order to protect Israel and America,” thrived in the region. Though ironically, with the developments today in Iraq, Syria and Libya, this same conspiracy theory has reemerged, its outcome “maybe closer to the truth”.

Passive actors?

Ghattas, who speaks at length in her book about the perceptions of the U.S. in the Middle East, interprets the conspiracy theories as an “indication of a continued reluctance to face our problems head on, and instead pointing fingers in the direction of the CIA or the Mossad or the MI6.” While “there are historic precedents to outside meddling,” Ghattas speaks of a tendency in the Middle East “to absolve ourselves from direct responsibility in domestic or regional problems.”

Underestimating the ability of Arabs to shape their own future is another drive for the conspiracy theories. Resorting to conspiracy theories also enforces the “perception that we are passive actors in a plan that has been formulated elsewhere” says Young, while Ghattas sees their recurrence despite the Arab Spring and other events driven by the people in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere, as a sign of lack of trust in the ability of Arabs to shape their future.

With ISIS, however, there is a sense of helplessness and embarrassment that spurs conspiracy theories, according to Young. “There is partly perhaps an element of denial, that this monstrosity and brutality is an embarrassment to Islam” he says, which makes assigning blame to Hillary Clinton or an outside force more appealing than admitting to the actual causes of the problem.

Yet such claims are even more problematic says Ghattas “when they are published by a well-regarded institution such as Annahar, and not a just start up website.” Young says that Mansour “had a predisposition to believe this story, without checking or verifying the truth of what he was saying.”

The claim that Hillary Clinton, a leading US politician and a likely 2016 presidential candidate, would write that the U.S. founded ISIS, the same organization that Washington has been targeting since 2003, is “absurd” and pure hogwash, says Young. Nevertheless, this episode and its widespread reach gives a new dimension to conspiracy theories in the Arab world and questions the over-dependency on social media as a news source at the expense of the truth.

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