Conspiracy theories and “mainstream” criticism of Islam in American politics

I listened to a very stimulating discussion of the underlying nature of conspiracy theories, on both ends of the political spectrum, on the invaluable Against the Grain podcast today.

Against the Grain, Tuesday Jan 8, 2013: “What’s the Matter with Conspiracy Theories?“:

From the assassination of JFK to a wide range of theories related to the attacks of September 11, 2001, conspiracy theories seem natural to the left. But should they be? Anarchist historian Peter Staudenmaier discusses the problems with substituting conspiracy theories for radical social critique. He draws on Sigmund Freud, Theodor Adorno, and Franz Neumann, focusing not on the details of any particular conspiracy, but on the problems with the theoretical assumptions on which they operate.

It’s quite striking how commonplace many of the essential traits enumerated here are within “mainstream” Western anti-Muslim discourse today–e.g., the inability of conspiracists to acknowledge complexity is mirrored in the instinctive, cartoonish framing of all violence by Muslims as “jihad”, or perhaps even part of The Jihad–even in otherwise intellectually respectable conservative media outlets.

I don’t think this is simply because Muslims have to a great extent replaced Jews in the world-view of Western bigots today. The animus that accompanies that dubious distinction in the national psyche explains some of the dumbing down of discourse on Islam, but I think there is a more fundamental reason. I suspect that it ultimately arises more out of the imperative of avoiding nuanced, un-circumscribed analysis of modern political problems involving Muslims that would bring into relief the real world consequences–for Westerners no less than Muslims–of glaring double standards, militarism and unilateralism that many in Western policy circles (especially in Washington, I sadly note as an American) cherish above all else. There’s no shortage of bigots with an ax to grind these days, but on the systemic level this is about business, maintaining the untrammeled prerogatives of empire.

When you live in fear of serious popular discussions of cause & effect concerning a host of consistently disastrously counterproductive policies around the Muslims world, to subliminally embrace conspiracism is a powerful way to keep those potentially unruly discussions in ideologically safe territory. And, just as the most influential bigots now invariably officially repudiate racism, the most influential Muslim-baiting conspiracists do so while posing as careful, dispassionate observers of Muslim affairs. Look closely at their unspoken assumptions,though, and you quickly discover it’s the same old manipulative reductionism and narrow agendas of crackpots and bigots.

There is an irony here, as one might argue that I myself am indulging in a form of conspiracism, but there are problems with that. First, as the speaker notes, there is a tendency to conflate systemic analyses of the practices and values of institutions that lead to controversial conclusions about those institutions with conspiracy theories, which are ultimately the exact opposite. A conspiracy theory focuses on the impact of the actions of an imagined group hidden conspirators, whereas this kind of a systemic analysis focuses on the objective, visible and widespread facts of power relations, practices and policies within an institution or system. The other problem with this charge is that, sadly, the world is full of all-too-real and sinister conspiracies, many brazenly operating in the open. Just look at how intellectual property rights treaties are being worked out these days by democratically-elected governments without any input from the public or NGOs, or how, ahem, American campaign finance operates post-Citizens United. In fact, as our democratic values and practices continue to slide it seems like conspiracies are only proliferating. The problem with conspiracy theorists ultimately isn’t that fact that they believe in conspiracies, but rather the irrational way they arrive at that conclusion.  As they say, you’re not crazy if there really are people out to get you.

Someone needs to write a book entitled Everything I ever needed to know about the world was worked out half a century ago by the Frankfurt School.


Tues 1.08.13 | What’s the Matter with Conspiracy Theories?

  • jim

    “…the inability of conspiracists to acknowledge complexity is mirrored in the instinctive, cartoonish framing of all violence by Muslims as “jihad”, or perhaps even part of The Jihad…”

    A counterpoint would be for Muslims themselves to acknowledge that jihad is violent, that an accurate definition is “Holy war.” How many times have Muslim, and other apologists for Islam, pronounced that jihad is only an inner struggle (the greater jihad), and that only anti-Muslim bigots believe jihad is violent? Some honesty and accuracy from these Muslim spokesman would help the discussion. One only need the collections of hadith and the historical writings of Tabari to see that real jihad was violent, aggressive, and very bloody.

    Of course not all violence committed by Muslims is Islamic. But some of it is. Wouldn’t the discussion be better served if both sides were more discerning and honest?

    • Svend White

      Thanks for the comment, Jim. I suspect we might disagree on a number of things here and we’re talking past each other a bit–I’m reflecting on how current events are often analyzed, while you’re commenting on a theological question–but your comment shows that I could’ve been clearer about what exactly I was criticizing there. I wasn’t talking about theology, or the content of the concept. My objection there was to the explaining human behavior with simplistic constructs that ignore the complexity of the real world and human psychology. An important point the speaker whose talk I linked to made was that serious social and political problems are rarely mono-causal. The tendency of many critics of Islam, Muslims and/or Islamic extremism to pretend that they’re being specific and pragmatic when the hold forth airily on “The Global Jihad” is very much akin, in my view, to this tactic used by conspiracy theorists to conceal the shoddy reasoning, selective use of evidence and extreme bias underpinning their world-view. The motivations may be different, but the function it serves is similar.

      Now, as to the true meaning of Jihad, this honesty is a complex topic, as it is a very profound and elastic concept. I’d say that it is first and foremost a metaphor. It means literally “to strive” for God/good. That can have very different applications, depending on circumstance and the values that prevail at the time (i.e., what people *consider* good). Some of those applications spiritual and inward-looking; others, political or even violent. [Note: There is no notion whatsoever of "holy war" in Islam. The Quran, for example, does not discuss war positively--much less in a sanctified manner--even when it acknowledges the need for it in certain circumstances.]

      I don’t agree with your reading of the religious sources. Many of the Quranic verses held up as “bloody” are preceded–sometimes immediately–with verses discussing self-defense or mercy. The situation with hadith is more complex, but I don’t think this caricature applies there, either.

      Yes, there certainly are and have always been Muslims who interpret Jihad in a problematic way and use it to justify awful things. Yet, in all religious traditions, beautiful, sacred principles get coopted and distorted to justify evil. The “Great Commission” of the Gospels was once invoked to justify the conquest and subjugation of the native peoples of the New World, Africa and Asia.

      What were the Crusades? A selfless quest for God’s sake? A cynical “holy war” to gain power and wealth? Simple self-defense against an encroaching rival power (i.e., the Muslims)? A pogrom against Jews, Byzantine Christians and Muslims? Depending on the time, place and the speaker, one could apply it in some sense to any of those definitions. And what is a “crusade” when modern Christians use the word? Many modern Christians would undoubtedly prefer the 1st definition, which I completely understand even while I am all too aware of its complicated history. For example, I understand that there is nothing political–much less militaristic–about the name “Campus Crusade for Christ.”

      Muslims use the word in all sorts of deferent ways, depending on the context and their values. (Incidentally, even when you look at the statements of the bona-fide extremists like Osama Bin Laden, if you read closely you sometimes find tensions between “jihadi” ideologies and more peaceful interpretations of Jihad. I think that tells you a lot, that even they have to implicitly invoke and coopt these competing interpretations when preaching violent jihad.)

      Bottom line: This stuff isn’t simple, and people who claim it is are either poorly informed dilettantes or rank charlatans.

      But I agree that there needs to be honest, frank discussions about the concept both in concept and practice. There is a parallel pitfall among Muslims of idealizing Islamic history and legal practice.

      • TMLutas

        I think you might benefit from shifting discussion of jihad as struggle or striving to a serious look at islamic courts, jurisdiction, and how they are almost designed to creep americans out. Americans are not really happy with universal jurisdiction courts, which I understand sharia courts are. We don’t even like it when truly minor powers like Belgium assert universal jurisdiction and are happy when they give it up. Worldwide Islam is a bit more powerful than Belgium and that increases the discomfort.

        Non-state courts, their rulings, their willingness to impose violent solutions, their willingness to impose sentence on Americans out of country, all of that is troubling. Even if the american in question is a goofball, he’s our goofball, and the US allows an extraordinary amount of impolite, bad behavior before you go to jail. We like it that way. I’m referring to the recent Terry Jones death sentence issued in Egypt. I don’t believe Egypt’s secular code provides for jurisdiction over pastor Jones but the sentence was issued nonetheless. Under what juridical theory but sharia was the court operating on if it was not operating on secular Egyptian law?

  • jim

    Hello Svend,
    I’m a Christian so yes there are things on which we disagree. But I believe we agree on other issues. It’s good to acknowledge that while we disagree about some things, we agree on others. For me, I don’t like starting a debate/discussion (I think as I may have done), without acknowledging that we have common ground as well. Having lived in the Mideast I’ve known and still know hundreds of Muslims, along with those I know in the States. I can tell you good stories and bad, but my overall experience was great. I now worry about them given that they are living through the turmoil of the “Arab Spring.” I’ve made great friends there, and with that friendship I was able to journey deeper into their lives and culture. We didn’t agree on all things religious, but the depth of friendship was real and it showed in our actions.

    Like you, I am troubled when I read a secular or Christian publication that lumps all Muslim violence under jihad. Surely some violence committed by Muslims is motivated by the cause to spread Islam’s dominance, but other violent acts are motivated by political situations, unfiltered passions, or acts of crime like theft, etc. I’m sure you know that there are Muslim publications that make untrue, blanketed statements about Christianity and Christians as well.

    My understanding of jihad is that it is more than a metaphor, it is an established Islamic principle. If Islamic books of law spend chapters on the martial aspects of jihad, and collections of Hadith have chapters on its military aspects, then “holy warfare to spread Islam’s rule” has moved beyond the metaphor stage. My reading and understanding of the Quran, hadith, sira, and tafsir, tell me that the foundation for Islam’s jihad is found and established in the Quran and the notion is certainly there in the Quran. Chapter 9, Al-Tawbah, starts with Muhammad claiming that Allah told him to break and/or end all treaties with the pagans, those living in peace, and those not so peaceful. All treaties were to be ended immediately, or not be renewed when they expired. Muhammad also told the Pagans that they would no longer be allowed to visit the Kaabah, (implicit was the penalty of death), a right the Pagans allowed for the Muslims previously. Verse 5 instructs the Muslims on when and how to fight the pagans who reject Islam. Verse 29 instructs the Muslims to make war upon and kill the Christians and Jews if they refuse to pay extortion – jizya. (The origins of Muhammad’s jizya were a “compensation” that Jews and Christians were to pay the Muslims who left their trade in pagan idols).

    I’m sure you’ve seen similar arguments written by people critical of Islam. But these same arguments are written, not as Islam-critical, but rather as religious instructions and commentary by Muslim scholars (Shafi’i and Ibn Kathir come to mind quickly), and there are Muslim clerics throughout the Islamic world calling for the oppression of non-Muslims (dhimmitude), according to their understanding of Islamic law.

    And this is what makes your task so difficult. The critics of Islam are supported by a huge mountain of evidence from the Quran, Hadith, sira, tafsir, and Islamic books of law state. I appreciate the effort you, and other Westernized Muslims, are making, i.e. trying to re-interpret the Islamic texts and make Islam more peaceful. I hope you succeed. There are a couple Islamic websites (like TAM) working toward the same end I believe you are.

    Your main point, of criticizing those who blanket all Muslim violence as “Islamic” or “jihad” is certainly true. Sifting through the details takes time, understanding, and the sincerity of an open mind. As I have studied Muhammad’s life and Islam, I doubt Muhammad would approve of much of the violence being carried out for religious purposes in the Islamic world today, and I don’t think he would call that violence “jihad.”

    • Svend White

      Hi, Jim

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      First off, I realize that people who’ve arrived at very different ultimate conclusions about religious questions (i.e., Muslims, Christians, Secular Humanists, …) are quite likely to disagree about important underlying issues or even some of the seemingly basic facts involved in that religious tradition. That’s part of why these discussions are so taxing—you have to spend an inordinate amount of time defining/correcting the terms of the discussion before you can even make your essential point, and the fact that in the case of Islam these days so many issues are surrounded by layers of misunderstanding, fear, polemics and/or outright disinformation only makes the enterprise harder and more time-consuming.

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve had such a rich exposure to Middle Eastern and Muslim culture. We Muslims have our share of problems, but I do think that widespread lack of such experiences adversely affects the ability of many Americans—who don’t even have friends from other races, much less religions—to approach these issues in a fair, informed manner. And I’m also happy to see that you’ve been enriched by such friendships, as I absolutely despise this utter hogwash you hear (from “mullahs”, whether Muslim or non-Muslim) about it being forbidden in Islam to make friends with non-Muslims.

      Yes, I am very critical of the ignorant, polemical and (I believe) ultimately un-Quranic way some Muslims discuss Christianity. One of my pet peeves is when Muslims talk about the Trinity as if it were literal, conscious polytheism, demonstrating blissful ignorance of the careful distinctions laid out by the various councils precisely to steer people away from polytheism during the faith’s first few centuries, and then endless Christological debates that have raged since then. Ignorance of other religions is common, of course—many of the US government’s counter-terrorism officials can’t even tell the diferrence between Shii and Sunni—but if you don’t know the first thing about something you really should leave commentary to people that do!

      The most common problem here, in my view, is the tendency among Muslim leaders to discuss the members of other religions as if they all are the same and/or frozen in a particular state for all eternity. Modern Jews, for example, are stunningly different today–religiously, culturally and politically–from how they presumably were in 7th century Arabia Medinah. You can’t coherently discuss them under a single category that covers all times and places. (And this is, of course, a mirror image of the discourse of Islamophobes, according to which this imaginary sinister construct of Muslimness animates Muslims regardless of their circumstances.)

      One difference between the cases you and I are lamenting, though—i.e., sloppy, essentializing rhetoric about Islam by Westerners and comparably ignorant rhetoric about Westerners or Christians by Muslims—is that many Muslims are not engaging in such problematic discourse in a cultural and educational context where this kind of pseudo-scholarly talk has long since been frowned on and debunked by scholars, as is the case in the West. We in the West can’t have it both ways, lamenting how primitive Muslim cultures are when allow ourselves to engage in similarly primitive thinking when it’s geopolitically convenient (it’s not a coincidence that such schizophrenia—lofty talk about civilization accompanied by dehumanizing rhetoric about savage “natives”–accompanied the various colonial projects). But your point is well taken and I don’t mean to let Muslim leaders off the hook for spreading ignorance—or, worse, hate—that only makes it harder for everyone to get along.

      I would like to try to address the Quranic verses and other legal matters your raise right now, but I don’t have the time, unfortunately. I will try to do so soon. I think that, when read in context and sensitively, the message of the Quran is, to the contrary, anti-war. Many of the passages frequently held up as warlike or being intolerant are grossly taken out of context, in my view. More on that later.

      You might find Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book Laying Down the Sword: : Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses stimulating (see the reviews on The American Conservative, Talk to Action, and HuffPo for some info). It illustrates how arguments can be made that the Quran is, contrary to stereotypes, far less violent or warlike than the Bible.

      I understand how you might view my approach or that of Sheila—I’m honored (if unworthy) to be mentioned in the same breath as the invaluable TAM—to be “re-interpreting” Islam to harmonize it with modern values. We, of course, would contend that this is rather elucidation, clearing the misunderstandings that arise out of the rampant, ahistorical projection of contemporary assumptions and circumstances—by Muslims no less than non-Muslims, it must be said—onto Islamic scripture, history and beliefs that emerged 14 centuries ago in a completely different world from ours today.

  • timberwraith

    Quoted for truth:

    I suspect that it ultimately arises more out of the imperative of avoiding nuanced, un-circumscribed analysis of modern political problems involving Muslims that would bring into relief the real world consequences–for Westerners no less than Muslims–of glaring double standards, militarism and unilateralism that many in Western policy circles (especially in Washington, I sadly note as an American) cherish above all else. There’s no shortage of bigots with an ax to grind these days, but on the systemic level this is about business, maintaining the untrammeled prerogatives of empire.

    In the US, you’re taught from childhood onward that “Americans are the good guys”. It’s hard to hear about, much less believe, that your country’s government and businesses have been involved in decades of political, economic, and militaristic abuse. So, when a group of people from the abused geographic region strikes back violently at your own country, it’s much easier to believe that such acts of violence are the product of an evil, hateful belief system. Combine this with a widespread ignorance of the belief system in question and a long history of racism against those with brown skin, and the current prejudices we see in action are given life. A prejudice born of racism, religious bigotry, and political ignorance forms a powerful self-reinforcing triad.

    I’ve seen this particular locus of ignorance run through the entire political spectrum of the US: right, moderate, and left. It’s literally everywhere. Each part of the spectrum has its own particular way of articulating these prejudices, but the net effect is similar: dehumanization of a mistrusted and deeply disliked other.

    • Svend White

      Thanks for the comment, TW (and my apologies for the inexcusable delay in approving it). I think you’re right, sadly. Some particulars will vary depending on a person’s position on the ideological spectrum, but when the wellbeing of a society’s political and economic elites depends on imperial domination of the rest of the world such shallow, amoral worldviews come with the mother’s milk. The exceptions aren’t people of a particular political persuasion, I think, but those of a particular psychological and ethical bent–you have to be willing to speak truth to power (and suffer the consequences thereof) and think independently in a manner that comes no more naturally on the Left than the Right (just look at all the “progressive” Democratic Party sycophants in Washington who once shrilly decried dreadful political and economic policies by George W. Bush but now unashamedly defend comparable or even worse policies by Obama).

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