Conspiratorial thinking in the public debate

Fawaz Turki

Published: Updated:

It’s always been hard in the Middle East to have a rational discussion about seminal events, especially events that come with a bitter pill to swallow. The reason? Logic gets in the way. That is, the convoluted logic of conspiracy theories, which proliferates in that part of the world.

Consider this case in point. Earlier this week, news reports datelined Istanbul - and it’s about time Turks abandoned the delusion that their country is part of Europe, not the Middle East - highlighted the fact that the Turkish press was saying, with a straight face, that the United States was behind the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador, as it was behind the massacre that resulted in the slaughter of dozens of revelers at an Istanbul nightclub, known as Reina, early on New Year’s Day.

A headline in a leading newspaper screamed: “America Chief Suspect.” And, according to the New York Times last Thursday, a legislator tweeted that “Whoever the trigger man is, the Reina attack is an act of CIA. Period.”

What is it with conspiratorial thinking and Middle Easterners, who seem to love not only its smug rhetorical flourishes, but to love according it with welcome in their public discourse? Arab commentators, for example, have over the years advanced the most outrageous, not to mention improbable, claims in that regard. Here’s a sample: the 9/11 attacks were the work of Israeli Mossad, the death of Princess Diana was the result of some diabolical plot by British intelligence to end her life rather than see her married to an Arab Muslim, Monica Lewinsky was an agent in place put there in the White House by the Jewish lobby - and so with other fantastical whimsies.

Let’s face it, a conspiracy theory is seductive, for at the end of the day its narrative leaves no question unanswered, no answer in doubt

Fawaz Turki

So what makes that kind of twisted thinking so compelling to so many people in our part of the world? Indeed who are these people who feel the need to subvert objective reality in such a laughable manner? One need not delve into the social sciences and the scientific effusions of the therapeutic community to learn that conspiratorial theorists tend to be either spiritually alienated souls or disadvantaged individuals who feel they live in societies that give them no promise.

Reinforcing victimhood

So where else to go in order to seek refuge, to find solace, as it were, but in conspiracy theories? And let’s face it, a conspiracy theory is seductive, for at the end of the day its narrative leaves no question unanswered, no answer in doubt. Why then accept the prosaic idea that, say, Yasser Arafat died of natural causes when an alternative narrative, provided by the peddler of conspiracy theories, tells you that the man was poisoned? The latter surely reinforces your own sense of victimhood and sensibility as an outsider. It speaks to you, about you, from you. As to how and where Yasser Arafat was poisoned, by whom and to whose benefit is irrelevant. Why insist that reality should remain real?

This issue of alienated or disenfranchised individuals sublimating their malaise through resort to fantasies would be of no more than marginal significance were it not for the very real harm that the diffusion of conspiracy theories causes in the real world. In the end, that diffusion wreaks havoc on society. To start with, it impoverishes as it is diffused, for misinformed citizens cannot make informed decisions, and without informed decisions, there’s chaos in the internal psychic economy of individuals and societies alike.

Then consider, additionally, how messing with reality like that will create a kind of cognitive dissonance in political culture and social life. You cannot live sanely, productively, in a polity that explains, via producers and consumers of tall tales, events as being the result of a secret plot by exceptionally powerful and cunning plotters out there to achieve malevolent ends.

To be sure, conspiratorial thinking is not, of course, confined to any one part of the world. Clearly it’s a universal phenomenon, though the manifestations of that phenomenon could vary in kind and in degree in each human community. In the United States, for example, conspiracy theorists abound, simple folks who are convinced that, say, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA (the CIA, again, see), the moon landing in 1969 was a hoax, the federal government is covering up evidence of alien landings, powerful elites are plotting a new world order, and the rest of it.

Indeed, there are Americans around who believe - hold on to your hat - that President Roosevelt let the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happen in order to draw the US into World War Two. The only difference here is that in the US, when theories like that are found in the mainstream media, they are not there to be debated seriously but to be mocked mercilessly.

It’s about time we adopted a similar posture in our part of the world and stopped conspiratorialists from disseminating their drivel. That way we save Middle Eastern societies from themselves. And, no, this columnist is not an agent-in-place planted by the CIA in this publication.
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.