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:
- A powerful actor or a number of actors joining together in perfect coordination
- bound by a secret agreement/ plan
- to achieve a hidden/ secret goal
- 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.