Down-home American parallels with Muslim conspiracy theories

These days, Islamophobes dwell lovingly on every example of conspiracy theories among Muslims. Nearly a decade ago, Daniel Pipes devoted a whole book (The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy) to it. Sociologically indefensible, neocolonial junk scholarship like Ralph Patai’s The Arab Mind (whose best use, said Brian Whitaker in The Guardian, is as a "door stop"; see this review by Lee Smith in Slate, as well) is steadily making a comeback, especially among neocons.

In an article I wrote for an upcoming book on the Danish cartoon controversy, I said the following:

Under the guise of “honest” discussions of cultural differences, the hate of the past is making a comeback. Unscientific beliefs in racial hierarchy of 19th century Social Darwinism that legitimized ethical abominations such as slavery and colonialism are slowly being rehabilitated today in the public sphere through Islamophobic hysteria. Instead of discussing Muslims and their problems in their historical context as one does with other kinds of people, many resort to essentializing bromides about the “Muslim mind” or “Muslim culture” that imply Muslims to be alien to the ways of the civilized West. Such anachronistic thinking encourages fatalism and inaction among all parties and, most critically, it banishes context—the most fundamental of all sources of insight into human behavior—from the debate, leaving public opinion vulnerable to scaremongering peddlers of self-fulfilling prophecies of communal strife.

So it makes perfect sense that there should be such a fascination with the existence of conspiracy theories among Muslims, as the xenophobes and assorted ideologues on the far right committed to driving them into the sea know that the most potent weapon of wartime politics is the irrationalization of the enemy. Once you establish in the public’s mind that an enemy lacks normal rational faculties, all options no matter how immoral eventually become politically acceptable. (Hence the laserlike focus of the corporate media during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion on Saddam being "crazy". And even though his insanity wasn’t a problem back when he was in our employ.)

What the Muslim-conspiracy-theory-problem peddlers invariably neglect to note, however, is 1) how common conspiracy theories are around the world and 2) how the resort to a conspiracy theory is sometimes a logical reaction to a world that does not seem to make sense given the information at one’s disposal. For example, as important as it is to counter pernicious theories of Jewish world domination, is it entirely irrational for the typical Arab who like with most Americans lacks an understanding of the intracacies of American policymaking to wonder Israel doesn’t excercise some sinister control behind the scenes as the world’s most powerful nation continually seems to work at the beck and call of one of the world’s smallest nations, and often in open opposition to international opinion? Unless you know a lot about American politics, European history, the workings of MSM, and the US’ incredible influence on international institutions such as the UN, I submit that it is impossible to rationally explain the bizarre spectacle of the US constantly bucking international sentiment and alienating hundreds of millions of Muslims and Arabs by slavishly catering to Israel’s  supposed interests (I say "supposed" because nothing is more in Israel’s interests than deescalating this tragic conflict)? How does a person in Cairo, Jakarta, or even Beijing explain this without wondering whether something fishy is going on in smoke-filled rooms?

That situation does not in any way justify hate campaigns, racism or dehumanization–which I believe are not fueled by honest ignorance, but rather by the passions aroused by oppression and military conflicts (America didn’t embrace anti-"Jap" fervor during World War II due to lacking information about the Japanese; this phenonemon was a predictable if lamentable result of war)–but it does help us understand some of the contributing factors in such glaring misunderstandings of the world. And that is the first step towards combatting the ignorance.

Let’s look at a conspiracy theory closer to home. Polls in the US have shown that whites overwhelmingly believe O.J. Simpson to have been guilty and his conviction to have been legitimate. A majority of Blacks polled, however,are convinced he was framed and the victim of a coverup.

People have come to diametrically opposed conclusions even though each side has more or less the same facts–famously referred to as "slam dunk" case by the prosecution–at their disposal.  Or do they?

In other polls, African-Americans consistently often describe a different perception of American.   Surveys also show a dramatic disparity between white and black perceptions of race relations, with whites consistently believing America has largely outgrown racism, a view that many minorities find utterly out of touch with their lived reality.

This isn’t surprising given that they experience sides to American life that are largely invisible to those not on the receiving end of racism. So they express far less trust in political and judicial system than do Caucasians.

Given all this and despite the fact that I, appropriately enough as a white person, believe him to have done the deed, I think it should come as no surprise that many in the African-American community should smell a rat in the outcome of the OJ Simpson trial and instinctively seek alternative theories that they find more empowering. They’re judging these facts based on radically different experiences of American life and the legal system. (Check out "Public sympathy for O.J. Simpson: the roles of race, age, gender, income, and education" by Carl E. Enomoto in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology for a sustained analysis.)

Which provides a good segway to the Sophia Stewart case. From "The Billion-Dollar Myth":

Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinema-Television, says the Stewart case speaks to African Americans’ deep distrust of the media. "A lot of people, regardless of race, continue to have very unsophisticated views of the media," said Boyd. "And many African Americans in particular are still very distrustful of the media." That distrust comes from a history of being either negatively portrayed or completely ignored by the press.

It’s for this reason that I find the article on the relative prevalence of widely refuted myths and conspiracy theories about a legal case pitting an African-American author Sophia Stewart against Hollywood over the authorship of some creative aspects of the mega-blockbusters "The Matrix" and the "Terminator". [A grateful hat tip to Planet Grenada]

Kemp Powers reports in the Los Angeles Times ("The Billion-Dollar Myth") that even though she lost her case and though the evidence for her charges seems thin, a parallel-universe version of this story lives on online in in some corners of the African-American community media wherein she was vindicated and won a massive settlement. This version of the story spread so widely and wildly that it earned itself a file on the urban legend debunker site Snopes.


In that alternate reality — created by Internet chain letters, radio stations and reputable community newspapers, and still flourishing on the World Wide Web — people sincerely believe that Stewart won her lawsuit last fall, and that she now is the wealthiest African American in the country, thanks to a record multibillion-dollar award. Her supposed settlement has been hailed as a legendary achievement in copyright infringement law, and a major moment in African American history. People also think that word of her victory has been suppressed as the result of one of the most sophisticated media conspiracies in history — even though none of that is true.

One of the points that Powers brings to light is that people’s perception of the world and desire for validation of themselves plays a role in their analysis of evidence.

In her 1994 book "I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture," UC Davis professor Patricia Turner explains that the symbolic quality of some stories often is more important to certain groups than whether those stories are true. Stewart’s story seemed particularly credible because she is a real person who filed a real case. "Sophia Stewart is David against Goliath," says Turner, and she represents African Americans who have been victimized by corporations.

Even as word spread that this was an urban legend, some community media continued to show more interest in the fictional version of the story than the facts.

That hasn’t stopped columnists at many African American newspapers and news sites from continuing to speculate. content manager Tamara Harris said the erroneous version of Stewart’s story is appealing because it "vindicates all of the black artists going through this."

Such examples from American life shed some light, I think, on why some Middle East conspiracy theories have a life of their own regardless of the facts (and not merely because Muslims and Arabs are less rational than you or me, as so many pundits today are working 24/7 to establish). For example, as ludicrous as the canard about thousands of Jews getting advanced warning before 9/11 (and as a result not showing up for work at the Pentagon) may be, like this fictitious and easily debunked tale of Hollywood victimization of a Black artist, it resonates deeply with how many Arabs and Muslims understand their world.

Like African-Americans who’ve been pulled over for driving while black or who’ve observed other forms of systematic racism against themselves or their friends and family, Arabs have long powerlessly observed irrational and seemingly inexplicable things happen for Israel’s benefit (as if scandalously preferential treatment for Israel even when it had earned international condemnation weren’t enough, during the Lebanon war Israel’s special treatment reached a shocking new low when Washington shamefully fought to keep a bloody conflict going despite desperate calls from a ceasefire from Lebanon and the rest of the world). How does the lay person in the Middle East explain all this knowledge except with resort to a conspiracy theory about Israel (who happens to be their opponent in a long-standing conflict)? And like some disenfranchised African-Americans who stuck with the mythical settlement in Stewart’s favor despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some Arabs and Muslims find this myth empowering as propaganda against their perceived oppressors.

It’s a sad state of affairs. I justify none of it, but unlike many pundits I understand that present political conditions condemn the region to such hatred and misunderstanding. Circumstances in the region aren’t very hospitable to real dialogue and debunking of stereotypes.  (How many Americans interested in the debunking stereotypes about Islam and Muslims after 9/11 set passions ablaze?)

The situation is, it should be noted, gravely aggravated by know-nothing knaves preaching loudly about hate while actively opposing any credible attempt at alleviating the problems and conflicts that fuel that hate.

The people who are really "irrational" are those in Washington who think these problems can be eradicated without getting serious about conflict resolution.

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