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from The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy

The history that is dreamed is also the historian's terrain.
- Alain Demurger
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.
- William James

Just a few minutes' political chat with a sophisticated Middle Easterner makes it clear how much he interprets great public issues through the prism of conspiracy theories. Whereas Westerners see a Syrian government long in conflict with Israel, he perceives Damascus as having surreptitiously worked hand in glove with the Jewish state since the 1960s. In his view, the Western powers built up Saddam Husayn, connived with him to put on Desert Storm, and provided him with the weapons to stay in power after his defeat. Ruhollah Khomeini may have appeared vitriolically anti-Western, but Middle Eastern interlocutors claim this ayatollah faithfully served his British (or American) masters right up to his death. And so forth.

However wrong-headed they may be, these views have great consequence. Indeed, 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 spawns its own discourse, complete in itself and virtually immune to rational argument. It suffuses life, from the most private family conversations to the highest and most public levels of politics. It helps explain much of what would otherwise seem illogical or implausible, including the region's record of political extremism and volatility, its culture of violence, and its poor record of modernization. The conspiratorial mentality also extends beyond the region, skewing both the way outsiders see the Middle East and spurring conspiracism in other parts of the world.

In sum, conspiracism constitutes one of the region's most distinctive political features. Ignore this phenomenon, "almost universal in the Middle East," and some of the most important features of the Arab and Iranian bodies politic remain elusive. Analyzing the region without taking the hidden hand into account is comparable to studying the American economy without Wall Street or Soviet politics without Marxism-Leninism.

Conspiracism's Range

Unlike the West, where conspiracy theories are today the preserve of the alienated and the fringe, in the Middle East they enjoy large, mainstream audiences. They flourish on the street and in the palace and everywhere between. If the uneducated and the pious disproportionately fall under their thrall, all strata of society share credulity. Most of the outstanding Muslim thinkers and actors of the twentieth century espoused conspiracy theories. The many startling statements in the pages that follow derive not just from casual conversations with taxi drivers and waiters, but from the solemn pronouncements of the Middle East's great politicians, religious leaders, scholars, and journalists. Ethan Bronner, a journalist for The Boston Globe, bears witness to this ubiquity; he tells of repeatedly finding himself "sitting in living rooms and book-lined offices, listening to scholars, businessmen or politicians weave surreal scenarios."

Further, conspiracy theories are not just private fears but public ones magnified in the most authoritative television and radio programs, books, magazines, and newspapers. Noting their presence in a leading Iranian newspaper, a scholar explains: "These paranoid fantasies should not be dismissed as the ranting and raving of the lunatic fringe; Khayan-e Havai is a 'highbrow paper' written for graduates studying in Western universities, that is, the crème de la crème of the Islamic Republic." The fear of conspiracy serves as the ubiquitous currency of Middle East political rhetoric, repeated in constitutions, laws, speeches, and communiqués. In a typical example, the Palestinian organization run by Abu Musa closed its fifth general congress in November 1989 with a brief telegram to its sponsor, President Hafiz al-Asad. In just a few boilerplate sentences, the message five times mentioned the hidden hand: "enemy plots," "plots against the central cause of our nation's struggle," "conspiracies," "capitulationist schemes," and "plots of the capitulationists and defeatists."

No occasion is too solemn to air conspiracy theories. At a ceremonial close to Ramadan fasting in 1990, Asad railed against the "dangers facing our nation" and promised that "we in Syria will confront the conspiracy." A few days later, his Mauritanian counterpart, Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, used the same religious ceremony to call on fellow citizens to be "extremely vigilant" in the face of "the sordid plot hatched against the existence, independence, and sovereignty" of Mauritania.

Nor is any topic too frivolous. Conspiracy theories pollute the world of sports, and especially international soccer matches. British journalist Emma Duncan reports from Pakistan that when that country's national team

was knocked out of the cricket World Cup in the semi-finals, it wasn't just because the Australians were better than the Pakistanis. There were various theories: one of the Pakistani players had been betting against his own team; the English umpires had favoured Australia because if England won its semi-final it would have to play against either Pakistan or Australia, and Australia was weaker; one of the Pakistani players was an employee of the company sponsoring the game, which had foisted him on to the team.

Fans are not alone in their worries; governments also purvey sports conspiracism. In November 1989, when the Iranian soccer team fared poorly at the Peace and Friendship Cup games, played in Kuwait, an Iranian newspaper read deep significance into the loss. Noting that the Kuwaiti government had helped Iraq in its war against Iran, Jomhuri-ye Islami argued that

the teams in this series of games were chosen in such a way as to facilitate the victory of the Iraqi team with the defeat of the Guinean national team such as that of Yemen. Following this, Iraq was able to advance. This indicates a premeditated plan aimed at ensuring Iraq's superiority in this series of games and at belittling Iran's Islamic revolution.

But the dastardly trick will not work, the newspaper concluded with gravity: "such a nation [as Iran] will not be belittled by losing a soccer game which was the fruit of collusion by the enemies of the revolution." If the Iranians smell soccer conspiracies, who are the Iraqis to resist the same temptation? When a star midfielder's excess fouls forced him to sit out Iraq's make-or-break game to advance to the World Cup finals, the Iraqi Football Federation in Baghdad responded by accusing the international soccer federation and the U.S. government of plotting to keep Iraq from winning the World Cup.

This Study


They may be a farrago of nonsense, but conspiracy theories have importance. The first chapter documents specific cases where credulity in conspiracy theories affected the course of the Middle East's history, from an event as specific and public as the Six-Day War to something so broad and private as an unwillingness to use contraception.

Part I samples major examples of the conspiracy mentality, with an accent on the specific. We begin with a look at three politicians with outsized conspiratorial legacies, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Notions of Greater Israel show how a fantasy exacerbates the most contentious political issue in the Middle East. Iran may be the country most under the sway of conspiracism, and the fall of the shah and the Islamic Revolution prompted some particularly striking examples of the mentality. Despite their very different orientations, the paranoid qualities of the Iraqi and Iranian governments, it turns out, are startlingly parallel and very revealing.

Part II analyses the picture of the enemy that emerges from conspiracy theories. What does he aim for, and how does he achieve these goals? Several chapters explore the two dominant figures, the Zionist and the imperialist (aka the Jew and the Christian). The Middle Eastern conspiracy theorist deems the links between these two so close, he often cannot tell who is manipulating whom, with perplexing consequences. In contrast, other possible plotters (Soviets, Japanese, Hindus) hardly register. I conclude with an analysis of the alleged conspirator's identity, characteristics, means, and motives. It is no exaggeration to say that these are all larger than life.

Part III surveys elements common to Middle Eastern conspiracy theorists and theories. I scrutinize the personality of the conspiracy theorist, his assumptions, the nature of the enemy he conjures up, and the type of argument he uses. Do conspiracy theorists share characteristics? Do men (there are but a handful of women's voices here, a reflection of Middle East realities) really believe these notions? I propose that while populations are credulous, leaders have a mix of motives. About the conspiracy theory itself, my analysis shows that they have five basic assumptions in common: conspiracies drive history, everyone seeks power, benefit indicates control, coincidences don't happen, and appearances deceive.

Part IV asks why conspiracy theories have proliferated in the Middle East. Noting the virtual absence of conspiracy theories in the region during premodern times, I conclude that they represent a modern phenomenon and have flourished only in the twentieth century. They spread due to four main causes: the worldly decline of Muslims, the influence of European thought, the plethora of actual conspiracies, and the specific nature of Middle Eastern politics, especially its pan-movements and its autocracy.

The conclusion looks to the future: What chance that Arabs and Iranians will slough off hidden-hand explanations? Anticonspiracist voices, sometimes very eloquent, do make themselves heard, but these have a limited reach so long as conspiracy theories serve important functions. Current trend lines therefore offer little reason for optimism in the short term; eventually, however, the Middle East should outgrow its obsessions.

On the title and subtitle: The "hidden hand" stands in implicit contrast to Adam Smith's "invisible hand." (It is also the title of a journal, The Hidden Hand: Or the Jewish Peril, published in the 1920s in London by The Britons, an anti-Semitic society.) The two terms contrast neatly: Smith saw the invisible hand making the market work to everyone's advantage, while conspiracy theorists believe that powerful individuals control the market and direct it to their own advantage and everyone else's detriment. "Fear of conspiracy" derives from David Brion Davis's title for a collection of writings on American conspiracy theories.

The Middle East is not of a piece, least of all in politics, and Middle Eastern countries succumb unequally to the conspiracy mentality. It pervades Iranian political life and in the Mashriq (the Arab East, especially Iraq, Syria, and Jordan) and appears less commonly in the Maghrib, (the Arab West). The term "Arab," therefore, refers primarily to Muslim and Christian Arabic speakers living in the Mashriq.) Conspiracism has little real impact on the mainstream of public life in Turkey or Israel (on which, see the appendix); Kurds seem less prone to conspiracism than Arabic and Persian speakers. Accordingly, North African, Turkish, and Israeli conspiracy theorists have a small presence in the pages that follow. But conspiracism flourishes in Pakistan (The Wall Street Journal finds that "100% of Pakistanis . . . are conspiracy theorists") so examples from there turn up in this study.

Within the Muslim world, influence tends to flow one way, from the Middle East out. To cover the Middle East, then, is to deal with ways of thinking that extend from Sarajevo to Brunei. Many of the patterns discussed here also apply to the rest of the Muslim world. In distant Malaysia, for example, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad echoes the Middle Eastern leaders when he sounds off about "Jews and Zionists" trying to oust him and destabilize his country. While some of the descriptions in this study also hold outside the Muslim world, I make no claim to universality.

Ignored Subject

Princeton historian L. Carl Brown wrote in 1984 about conspiracy theories that "this pervasive Middle Eastern attitude has rarely been studied in a systematic way. The evidence to show that such an attitude exists, while accessible, has been largely ignored." He is right. While a number of authors have dealt with the conspiracy mentality in the Middle East (including Brown himself, Graham E. Fuller, Yehoshafat Harkabi, and Marvin Zonis), as have some journalists, the topic remains elusive and for the most part unstudied.

This rudimentary state of research has two implications. For one, it means looking to European and American studies for ideas and guidance. I have greatly profited from the writings of Johannes Rogalla von Bieberstein, Norman Cohn, David Brion Davis, Richard Hofstadter, Gordon S. Wood, and many others. For another, tackling a new subject means setting modest goals; this study serves only as a preliminary investigation of a large and complex topic. It does little more than document a phenomenon and offer a general interpretation. With luck, others will take up more ambitious questions, such as the origins of prominent conspiracy themes, changes over time, and reasons for the waxing and waning of the conspiracy mentality.

The huge numbers of conspiracy theories means that examples provided here are very far from exhaustive. Still, I have tried to give a broad sampling, believing that these illuminate the conspiracy mentality, document it, and establish its general qualities. The following pages deemphasize constantly repeated but vague generalizations about "international plots" in favor of the highly original formulations that so color Middle Eastern public life.

My Goals

The conspiracy mentality, it bears noting, reaches even the world of scholarship, compelling me to state what I wish were obvious but fear is not: I have no covert purpose in writing on this topic. Specifically, I aim not to discredit the Muslim Middle East, much less to embarrass the individuals quoted. Rather, I have several constructive purposes for this study.

First, by analyzing a key phenomenon I hope to help non-Middle Easterners understand the region's political culture. If outsiders are ever to cope with this volatile region, its motivating forces and reigning ideas need to be clarified. The hidden-hand phenomenon lies at its confused heart because it greatly influences the way Arabs and Iranians see themselves and the outside world. Oddly, Westerners tend to study their own attitudes toward the Middle East much more than the reverse. Bernard Lewis, the renowned historian, observes that "Far less attention has been given to the origins and development of Middle Eastern attitudes toward the West, though these are of at least equal importance in determining relations between the two. In the absence of the rather Western habits of self-analysis and self-criticism, they may even be of greater importance."

Second, I hope to increase the possibility, however meager, that Arabs and Iranians themselves will become more aware of the invidious effects of conspiracism. Although nearly all the data in the following pages derive from the rulers and their propaganda machines, it is safe to assume that this study could not (and will not) be published in the Muslim Middle East. Many scholars relied on throughout this study-Walid Mahmoud Abdelnasser, Saïd K. Aburish, Fouad Ajami, Ahmad Ashraf, Khalid Durán, Kanan Makiya-hail from the Middle East. Significantly, these brave individuals live in the West for such frank discussions are at best discouraged in their home countries, at worst completely censored.

This points to an important matter: those who benefit from liberal democracy must expose the dictators' dirty laundry, for no one else will. Again, Lewis:

[We] have a moral and professional obligation not to shirk the difficult issues and subjects that some people would place under a sort of taboo; not to submit to voluntary censorship, but to deal with these matters fairly, honestly, without apologetics, without polemic, and of course, competently. We who enjoy freedom have a moral obligation to use that freedom for those who do not possess it.

It does no one a favor to suppress an unsavory topic like conspiracy theories; doing so not only constitutes an act of condescension but reduces the chances that Arabs and Iranians will come to terms with their weaknesses.

Superior Western Attitudes

Condescension rears its ugly head in other ways too. Westerners often dismiss what Arabs and Iranians say and write, implying that they indulge in rhetoric for its own sake. Saddam Husayn's speech on 17 July 1990 threatening force against Kuwait, for example, prompted Don Kerr of the International Institute for Strategic Studies to declare that "Arabic rhetoric always is colorful, so it's natural in the region for people to discount what they are hearing"; just two weeks later, Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait. Dismissing what Middle Easterners say constitutes a shameless caricature, an act suggesting little imagination and much ethnocentrism. Middle Easterners do not just bandy words about; far more often, these bespeak sincere beliefs.

Also, Westerners tend to look on Middle East credulity with smug superiority, assuming themselves and their own civilization not susceptible to the puppet theory of politics. Already in 1911 Joseph Conrad wrote that "to us Europeans of the West, all ideas of political plots and conspiracies seem childish, crude inventions for the theatre or a novel." But the record, then as now, emphatically shows otherwise. Conspiracy theories reigned in Western Europe and the United States for about two centuries, 1750 to 1950. Name any date from the Enlightenment to the close of World War II, and the historian can offer a plentiful sampling of phobias about secret societies, banking cartels, and Jewish cabals. Indeed, credence in conspiracy theories has led to incomparably greater disasters in Europe than elsewhere; the tyrannies of Stalin and Hitler caused tens of millions to perish, vastly exceeding all the mischief combined of Middle East conspiracy theorists. The twentieth century's terrible history should expunge the impression that conspiracy theories are trivial or that Westerners are immune to them.

At the same time, conspiracism has been marginalized in the West since about 1950, rarely driving the actions of governments or other major institutions. This helps explain why Westerners tend to see the phenomenon as minor. But conspiracism (like nationalism, another set of ideas that has atrophied in its place of birth) still packs a lot of punch in the rest of the world. Indeed, to make matters worse, today's reigning Middle Eastern phobias about Zionists and imperialists derive in very large part from European sources. Chapter 15 takes this matter up more deeply; here it suffices to note that tidal waves of Western influence reached the Middle East after 1800, changing everything from household furnishings and sexual customs to methods of pedagogy and political institutions; not surprisingly, the Europeans' deepest social fears also got passed along, changing the face of the Middle East in the process.

The rational West, in short, has no moral edge on other civilizations, nor any reason for arrogance when it comes to the matter of political paranoia. Western readers would do well to purge themselves of superior attitudes.


The pages ahead distinguish between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. The first describes an actual instance of covert collusion, the latter something that exists only in the imagination of an observer.


The word conspiracy quaintly derives from the Latin for "breathing together." A conspiracy involves two or more conspirators jointly and secretly aiming to achieve a prohibited goal.

Conspiracies do occur. The European powers did conspire to divide up the Middle East during World War I (the Sykes-Picot agreement); the Israelis did bomb American targets in Egypt in 1954 to put the blame on Gamal Abdel Nasser (the Lavon Affair); and the U.S. government did send arms to Iran in the mid-1980s (the Iran/contra scandal). The pages ahead (and especially chapter 16) contain many references to individuals who form secret societies and plan clandestinely.

Conspiracies subdivide into petty conspiracies, which work within the existing order, and grand conspiracies, which aspire to world domination. The former are limited affairs that involve a handful of individuals plotting to make money or to seize power. They aim at transferring money from one pocket to another or replacing one set of rulers with another. With some exceptions, petty conspiracies receive little attention here.

Rather, grand conspiracies are the main topic. (Accordingly, conspiracy in the pages ahead is usually a shorthand for grand conspiracy.) Larger and vaguer, these go beyond plots for personal gain or for power or money; they seek to destroy religion, subvert society, change the political order, and undermine truth itself. Grand conspiracies involve not duplicitous politicians or evil merchants but covert international movements. They capture the imagination and inflame political passion; they are big enough to cause all the world's ills-and certainly yours and mine.

Conspiracy Theory

A conspiracy theory is the nonexistent version of a conspiracy. Anyone might speculate about the odd conspiracy theory, but the conspiracy theorist makes this a habitual practice. He discerns malignant forces at work wherever something displeases him; plots serve as his first method for explaining the world around him. He suspects a plot or cover-up even when other, less malign explanations better fit the facts. We variously call this preoccupation with conspiracy theories conspiracism, the conspiracy mentality, the hidden-hand mentality, or the paranoid style.

Just as conspiracies divide into two sorts, the petty and the grand, so do conspiracy theories. Petty theories deal with limited aims, grand conspiracy theories involve fears of world domination. Jasim al-Mutawa, the largest loser in Kuwait's Suq al-Manakh stock bubble of 1982 (he owed something like $10.5 billion), blamed his downfall on the established commercial families who resented his success. As usually the case with petty conspiracy theories, this one was local in dimension and limited in scope. Like petty conspiracies, the mentality associated with them goes back to the earliest social forms and is effectively ageless.

Grand conspiracy theories may also have local manifestations, but they invariably fit into a larger scheme that has the ultimate goal of world hegemony. Such theories have a finite history. They began during the Enlightenment in northwestern Europe, became a major factor with the French Revolution, and peaked in importance in the three decades after 1918. Grand conspiracy theories have a well-established structure and form. The story begins with a small group attempting to benefit itself by clandestinely making plans to take over the government or expand its influence abroad. Its means can be many-spreading lies, destroying a political system, controlling multinational corporations-but the immediate goal is usually economic. Power is a not an end in itself but usually a way to gain wealth, status, or sex. The conspiracy theorist tends toward a Manichean outlook in which the battle zone of Good and Evil has no boundaries. Opponents are agents, mishaps result from plots.

Although grand conspiracy theories surfaced in the Middle East only during the late nineteenth century, their subject matter ranges much farther; indeed, it often extends right back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. More broadly, conspiracy theorists reinterpret the whole sweep of Islamic history, plundering medieval texts to locate instances of conspiracy, especially on the part of Christians and Jews.

Grand conspiracy theories are the topic here; for simplicity's sake they will in most cases be referred to simply as conspiracy theories.

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