Why is the Muslim world rife with conspiracy theories?

In the Muslim world, the cultures are rife with conspiracy theories

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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In the West there is a saying: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” But stupidity, ignorance, incompetence and corruption in ourselves are much more difficult to accept than the evil of others who we regard, for whatever reason, as enemies. And when all is said and done, in the game of Us vs. Them, evidence counts for little. We already know that we are good and virtuous and deserve good lives. And we already know that our enemies are evil, and would like nothing better than to deprive us of what we deserve. That is why they are our enemies, after all.

And so, here we are: in the Muslim world, the cultures are rife with conspiracy theories. We are good, decent people and yet our lives are not often as fulfilled as we think they should be. We are often politically dominated by our governments, as they are by foreign powers. Economic opportunity is often something mythical, from far-away Western lands. And we often feel that we do not have much control over our destinies at all.

Is it not possible that we have our fair share of responsibility for not standing up and defending the Islam of peace more vigorously in the last few decades?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

And just like primitive peoples who saw evil spirits in thunder, sandstorms and drought, everything that is wrong in our countries must surely be animated by some evil spirit behind the illusory veil of politics and the media. These evil spirits bear many frightful names: the West / the CIA / MI6/ Israel / Mossad, or just old Hindu India. But we seem to think that what they want is clear; they want to steal our resources and undermine our way of life.

Imaginative interpretation of the facts

Now this is not to say that Western powers do not have a huge historic responsibility for a lot of our current condition. Britain and France partitioned the Levant and Iraq after WW1 in a way that could only ever have ended in blood and tears. The only surprise is that it took so long for the region to erupt into a crisis like the one we now have with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Britain and America removed democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and created a subsequent regime run by Fazlollah Zahedi that had the worst human rights track record in the world throughout the 1970s. And surely by now there should be no doubt that Iraqi oil was at least a major consideration in the U.S./British decision to invade Iraq in 2003 – what with all those tax concessions and billion-dollar contracts for U.S. firms to “aid the reconstruction.”

But to go from that to maintaining that 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government so that they could launch a new crusade on the Middle East, or that the leader of ISIS is a Mossad agent and the “Caliphate’s” purpose is to further destabilise the region, requires quite an imaginative interpretation of the facts.

Still, this creative approach means that we do not have to face some rather difficult possibilities. One of these possibilities is that in much of the Muslim world, we have abided, if not outright encouraged, the spread of puritanical and divisive strands of Islam. Is it not possible that we have our fair share of responsibility for not standing up and defending the Islam of peace more vigorously in the last few decades?

And now, since it is “obvious” that our old enemies, Israel, the West and India are to blame for the turmoil, we are also conveniently absolved of making a stand for our Islam of peace. After all, what can we, the little people, do when all the world is against us? At least the Islamists are standing up for the Muslim world, no? And thus, with no actual conspiracy, and to everyone’s despair, hundreds of Muslims die every day at the hands of Muslims. But at least we can sleep well at night. We bear no responsibility for any of this.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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