Conspiracy theories and the Algerian mind

Conspiracy thinking probably exists in every society, however it seems to be the predominant mode of reasoning in the Arabo-Muslim world. By predominant, I mean that it pervades all classes of these societies and constitutes a ubiquitous genre of narratives (or counter-narratives) encountered in journalistic analyses, popular culture, gossip, political discourse…etc. This is different from the US for example, where conspiracy theories are also popular but not in the same disproportionate fashion nor with the same predilection. The psychodynamic and cultural determinants which underlie this phemenon might be different or influenced by different factors in these two cases. It would therefore be interesting to attempt to understand the correlations between conspiracy-modes of thinking and the factors which promote and eventually validate them. All conspiracy theories are centered around a simplistic dualistic worldview represented by, one the one hand, an Evil force , usually incredibly coordinated, powerful and secretive/ elusive (a Great Satan) and, on the other hand the hopeless and clueless populace. Here is a typical progression of a conspiracy theory/ plot:

  1. A powerful actor or a number of actors joining together in perfect coordination
  2. bound by a secret agreement/ plan
  3. to achieve a hidden/ secret goal
  4. which is perceived to be unlawful or sinister.

The conviction that the actors who are conspiring are supremely powerful and the theme of deception and ‘hidden’ reality are very deeply rooted in conspiracy thinking.

Such conspiracy theories are systematically brought-up by people in order to provide a ‘more plausible’ counter-narrative to the ‘official’ version of events. But quite often, official sources themselves resort to conspiracy-type narratives in order to validate and legitimate themselves or their policies. Even scientific theories are not spared, as some of them are perceived as conspiracies to erode the moral fabric of Muslim societies. Here’s an amusing example:

Darwin’s theory is another faded theory. Like communism, Masonry, secularism…etc. It is a child of Jewish thought and should not be taught in our Islamic country. America and Britain now prohibit its teaching because of its weakness. And we try to study it! Why? As for Freud, he wanted to implement Darwin’s plot against our Islamic society, as indicated when he said: “My mind will not rest nor my eye close until I see humanity return to its origin” -i.e., to its ancestor the ape. He meant that women should go out with their genitals uncovered like apes. The lewdness we see in our streets is merely an immediate translation of this proposition and of this sinful plot.

This is to say how pervasive this mode of thinking is – it is not restricted to political contexts where, it might be argued, the opacity of the rules and organizing principles encourage such modes of making sense of the incomprehensible.

Here are examples of Algerian conspiracy theories:

  • Zionist conspiracies to rule the world and/ or destroy Arabs/ Muslims
  • DRS conspiracies to sabotage anything and everything that is not in line with the DRS’ mysterious plan
  • Army conspiracies to maintain power by resorting to civilian massacres and blaming them on Islamists or the generals complete control over economic sectors and national trade (the ‘generals’ logic)
  • French conspiracies to keep Algeria as a colony, even independence is sometimes regarded as a French conspiracy to continue the exploitation of Algeria without the hassle of administering it
  • Islamists’ conspiracies to turn people against the Pouvoir by engaging in terror acts which are then blamed on the Pouvoir
  • Kabyle conspiracies to divide Algeria/ convert Muslim Algerians into Christians and promote sectarianism
  • Shi’ite conspiracies to destroy Sunni Islam and bring sectarianism to Algeria by mass conversions into Shi’ism
  • Secularist/ Liberal conspiracies to destroy Islam and make Muslim countries as decadent as the West
  • Communist conspiracies to make societies atheistic and depraved and facilitate their domination

There are probably more, especially in the current exciting times leading up to elections, but these are perhaps the ones that are most specific to Algeria. It is also worth noting that this mode of thinking is also projected onto individuals, not just institutions representing authority and ideological groups. For example, one often hears Algerians saying that such or such person (neighbor, family member, friends…etc.) is conspiring to harm such and such person or had been planning an evil plot all along. So this untrusting way of looking at the world is not only reserved to political matters. It is not clear whether it is the political situation which caused this mistrust or whether it is a pre-existing characteristic socio-cultural propensity to mistrust that led to the political situation. It’s a chicken and egg dilemma.

The problem with such conspiracy theories is not that they are completely false; all conspiracy theories are constructed based on actual facts or observations and they rely on a perfectly rational and logical framework in order to link these facts together and make sense of them. So the approach is quite empirical, one might even say scientific were it not for the fact that conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable. They are always true. The belief that ‘Christians’, ‘Jews’ and all other non ‘Muslims’ will always be conspiring against Muslims is a typical example. The problem is that such modes of reasoning are completely out of touch with the complexity of the real world. They reflect a particular way of interpreting the world; a way that is prone to paranoia.

The main similarity between paranoia and conspiracy thinking is that both produce an unrealistic version of ‘reality’. However, conspiracy-thinking is much more complex than paranoia and cannot be reduced to mental or psychological processes. In addition to psychological factors, conspiracy-thinking is influenced  by historical, cultural, social, structural as well as political factors.

So what factors account for the near obsession with conspiracy theories which prevails in Algeria? I have recently read an article which attempted to answer this question but by taking the Middle East (including Iran) as a case study. The article included lots of psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo, but there were some pertinent insights that I found relevant to Algerian people. Here is a summary:

  • The psycho-cultural determinants which may predispose our people towards conspiracy thinking are: secrecy, child raising practices and attitudes towards sexuality. These three factors are shaped by recurrent themes of secrecy/ taboos/ dualism. For example, the abrupt expulsion of adult males from the feminine world represented by their mothers, is claimed to force them to develop a dichotomous worldview that is parallel to the masculine-feminine/ real-unreal pattern. The Islamic distinction betwen the ‘apparent’ or ‘exoteric’ (dha’hir) and the ‘hidden’ or ‘esoteric’ (batin) is also stressed as being one strong cultural trait which favors the perception of conspiracy theories being more real than the apparent reality just like the hidden reality is believed to be the ultimate true reality. I didn’t get the sexuality argument, it was too Freudian for my taste.
  • Frustration in social situations also has a counterpart in the difficulties our cultures and nations have in integrating into the larger community of nations. A higher incidence of conspiracy thinking would be found among peoples with lengthy experience of being dominated by others. Such problems have faced our nations for some time and appear to be reflected in the conflictual attitudes of Islamic leaders towards modernization and toward the West. But also secular nationalist leaders towards any form, real or imagined, of ‘foreign intervention’.

However the most interesting conclusion of all is this:

Such thinking is fundamentally inimical to the goals that Muslim Arabs and Iranians seek to achieve. The liberation of their nations from the pervasive and powerful challenges of foreign influence is less likely to be achieved in an atmosphere of pervasive conspiracy thinking. For conspiracy thinking is conducive not to liberating action but to crippling passivity, and what makes conspiracy thinking so soothing and gratifying is in large part its great capacity to rationalize, even valorize, passivity.

I completely agree with the above quote. Although it cannot be denied that, historically, our part of the world has experienced continuous and continued interference (in violent, traumatic and conspiratorial forms), our current focus on conspiracy thinking, even though it is historically validated, will not help us achieve the liberation that we crave. On the contrary, it will submerge us deeper still in our passivity and will bring about regression, because in the modern world, whatever doesn’t move forward will definitely regress.

I don’t think it would be of any use for us to try and determine causal relationships in order to rationalize the terrible state of affairs in our country. The factors highlighted above might not be the direct causes of our current predilection for conspiracy thinking, but they are certainly correlated with it and as such they serve as compounding factors. As for the causes, even if we accept that our historical misfortunes (eg. French colonization) are the direct cause of the current situation, conspiracy thinking will certainly not help us reverse the situation. Therefore, we need to find ways to liberate ourselves from such passivity-valorizing modes of thinking.

This would be the first and the most important step towards real liberation.

6 thoughts on “Conspiracy theories and the Algerian mind

  1. L’inclination pour l’explication conspirationniste est un échappatoire. C’est toujours une manière de se dédouaner à bon frais. La raison pour laquelle elle est si répandue chez nous est que nous avons besoin d’échapper à une réalité peu flatteuse.

    Ceci dit, je distinguerai deux sortes de théories du complot : celle que je trouve totalement absurde qui tente d’expliquer des faits majeurs, des mouvements des peuples et des révolutions sociales par des complots. Ainsi par exemple, les algériens ont été très enclins à dire que les révolutions arabes étaient le fait des américains. Parfois, tu discutes pendant des heures avec des gens qui te listent de leur propre chef tout ce qui va mal et qui, pris séparément donne des raisons de se révolter. A la fin; les même personnes te disentt mais… ce sont les américains qui provoquent les révolutions…

    La dexième sorte de théorie du complot est celle concernant des faits plus contenus dans le temps et concernant moins de monde, se tient parfois. Je dis ça parce que je suis assez conspirationniste pour tout ce qui concerne Benladen. Je ne dis pas que les américains ont crée de toutes pièces les mouvements radicaux islamistes. L’idéologie qui les sous-tend existe et elle prospère au delà des quelques fous furieux qui prennent les armes. Je pense juste qu’ils favorisent ou pas selon leurs intérêts l’un ou l’autre des acteurs, voire, ils font plus que le favoriser et vont jusqu’à lui donner un coup de main…

    Ce qui est révélateur aussi c’est le conspirationnisme concernant les juifs. Traditionnellement, chez nous, les rapports envers les juifs étaient faites de mépris et de racisme qu’on trouve jusqu’à aujourd’hui dans le langage… Ils étaient affublés de toute sortes de tares : sales, fourbes, couards… etc mais jamais ils n’ont été vus comme les maîtres cachés du monde qui décident de tout, des crises et des guerres et même de la pluie du beau temps et du SIDA…. Cela était une spécialité des chrétiens européens… Maintenant, elles ont décliné en Europe et on les a récupérées pleines et entières…

    • Qatkhal

      I agree: the most ludicrous conspiracy theories are those which affirm that global phenomena are manipulated by a secretive and supremely powerful cabal of individuals harboring sinister and evil intentions for humanity. Clearly, politics and history are rife with all sorts of ‘real’ conspiracies (eg. the numerous ‘coups d’Etat’ in the Third World, US foreign policy ‘scandals’, the dirty games of past and present European monarchies…etc). But my point in this post was that we use conspiracy theories as a ‘universal’ mode of thinking to explain everything and anything, including banal individual conflicts. I find it fascinating how Algerians (and I will only talk about Algerians simply because, being Algerian myself, am most familiar with them), as individuals, are always busy projecting a completely fanciful image of themselves and others. It takes tremendous brain power, wasted on completely ludicrous matters. If we forget the political aspect for one moment, we will realize that this propensity is ubiquitous even between individuals (husbands and wives, mothers and children, teachers and pupils, friends, neighbors, managers and employees…etc). Most Algerians never take things at face values, they often spontaneously engage in all sorts of interpretations of the ‘hidden’ meaning of what such or such said or did and then base their reaction entirely on these interpretations. It is a socio-cultural order.

      So I think explaining it as a way to escape the sad reality is only partially right. There must be other ‘hidden’ motives (lol there you go, a new conspiracy theory is born right here in this post). There are deeply rooted psychological and mental processes which need to be reformed, the sooner the better. The question is how, when our cultural and political determinants rather favor such mechanisms. A revolution won’t change that.

      • Le ressort de cette tendance est surtout psychologique. “Que serions-nous sans le secours de ce qui n’existe pas?” disait Paul Vaéry. La construction de mythes et surtout des mythes fondateurs et unificateurs repose sur le même fonctionnement mental. L’Homme a besoin de dépasser la banalité des faits et parfois leur absurdité pour les habiller d’un enchantement qui lui embéliit son image et celle des siens.

        • Avec tout le respect (et l’incrédulité) que je dois aux grands psychanalystes de l’humanité, je pense que parfois la psychologie algérienne défie toutes les théories de la psychologie lol. C’est un terrain vierge et inexploré. Je rêve qu’un jour on aura des psychologues et des sociologues authentiquement algériens qui étudieront la psychologie algérienne et développeront leurs propres théories. Ce sera le premier pas vers l’auto-regénération.

  2. Great post and i agree with you on everything. However, i would not use the word “rational framework” (that’s if you mean by rational an actor that maximizes his utility) because rational choice is based on parsimony, and parsimony and conspiracy-laden or driven thinking are like two parallel lines. They never cross each other.

    • Thank you laseptiemewilaya.
      Interesting insight. By rational I was referring to the use of reason to make linkages between separate observable ‘facts’. Clearly, rationality is not as universal as was once thought – it is a subjective socio-cultural construct. I think like Qatkhal said, conspiracy-thinking serves many useful survival mechanisms, especially in the current state of affairs. The Muslim world is for the first time in its history completely dominated and on all fronts. This is very traumatic as the historical narrative upon which it is founded has been seriously undermined. So I think the subconscious would tend to favor such mental processes as a protective and shielding mechanism. The problem is that in the modern age, not all primitive survival mechanisms will be beneficial. The environment we live in has fundamentally changed and it favors newer survival mechanisms.

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