Introduction: Conspiracy theories have enormous explanatory power for many people, capturing their emotions, luring believers to suspend their critical thinking capacities, and sometimes propelling them into violent action. The explanatory power of conspiracy theories derives from the fact that they make an implicit claim to universality and necessity. Absurd though it may seem, their subtext is often that the alleged conspirators are the universal, necessary, and ultimate, source of evil in the world or, at least, the group of conspirators are believed to be Satan's earthly agents. Usually, the more malevolent the conspiracy theory, the more ultimate is the implicit metaphysical claim. Sometimes this claim to universality is even explicit, as in the conspiracy theory about Jewish plans for world domination - The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Conspiracy Theories in the Muslim World
It is generally accepted that conspiracy theories tend to flourish especially among those buffeted by circumstances, including those inhabiting the fringes of political life and those heavily weighed down by problems. The sense that history has gone wrong leads many Muslims to see their fall from grace resulting not from the West's achievements but from its treachery and conspiracy. Wilfred Cantwell Smith explains Muslim outrage at the modern predicament with great insight:
The Islamic tradition was formed on the principle that destiny is in the hands of God, It is Allah who controls events. The Mu'tazilah [a group that flourished in the early Islamic period] and others argued the point: some Muslims have felt that, under God, destiny was in their own hands. The recent bitterness was that it seemed to be neither God nor the Muslims who controlled events but the British or Americans -the domineering, discourteous, brash infidels who suddenly pushed themselves noisily on the scene.
According to John Town Albert, the Muslims' anachronistic sense of superiority contained within it the seeds of the paranoid style; the arrogance of one age turned into the conspiracy mentality of the next. Muslims expected the area of their sovereign rule (Dar al-Islam, the area of all previous Muslim sovereignty) to expand without limit, but instead it almost vanished, prompting dire suspicions. Fundamentalist Muslims tend especially to see modern history as one gigantic trick by the West. In a typical observation, Khamene'i of Iran blames the Muslims' predicament on the "materialist, arrogant, powerful unbridled, selfish, haughty, and bullying hands of the arrogant powers." (John Town Albert, Iraqi News Agency, 4 March 1993.)
By thus blaming their problems on Western evil weakened Muslim peoples find solace and the means to cope with crisis. Conspiracism permits them to escape responsibility for weakness and poverty; were it not for Western intrigues against Islam, they tell themselves, Muhammad's people would still enjoy their former superiority over Europe. Conspiracism allows Middle Easterners to see themselves as powerful but naive, as enervated and exploited by conniving Western agents.
Although grand conspiracy theories surfaced in the Middle East only during the late nineteenth century, it was the early twentieth century, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book that portrays Jews as a distinct people who pose a danger to the whole world, that gave anti-Semitism its global underpinnings.
Titled by Norman Cohn “Warrant For Genocide” due to its use in Nazi propaganda “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is one of the most visible conspiracy theory items in the Muslim world. In contrast to Europe where the Protocols have been severely discredited, a number of present day Arab and Muslim regimes and leaders have endorsed them as authentic.
In fact other claims like for example “the Jews ordered the start of World War I” (often connected with the Stab in the back myth) are reminiscent of Nazi propaganda during WWII.(1)
During the mid-1920s, Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf of his suspicions about the Zionists' ultimate goals: "They do not think at all of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine to live in it someday; rather, they want a central organization for their international world cheating, withdrawn from others' reach-a refuge for convicted dregs and a college for aspiring swindlers." (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP, 1935), p. 356.)
As late as Mai 1943 Hitler still maintained that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were “absolutely real” revealing the “plans for world power by the Jews”.(2)
According to Edward Atiyah the Nazis found an eager audience in the Middle East for their anti-Semitic message. Hitler's ideology appealed to many there. Already in the mid-1930s, one Arab recalls, Palestinian Arabs "lapped up Fascist and Nazi lies.” (Edward Atiyah, An Arab Tells His Story: A Study in Loyalties, London, 1946, p. 203.)
The Mufti of Jerusalem during World War II, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, attempted to establish an alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Arab nationalists, for the ultimate purpose of conducting a Holy War of Islam against "international Jewry."
Several Nazi-influenced political parties arose in the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s, some of which went on to play important roles in shaping the leadership of Arab nations in the post-World War II period.
To gain a new favorite status for an alignment of the Muslim world, Hitler with the help of the Palestinians wanted to exterminate half a million Jews in what is now Israel plus all Jews in Tunisia and Syria. SS Walter Schellenberg (Head of the Secret Service) wrote Summer 1942: The extreme friendliness of the Muslim world towards Hitler comes from the hope he will remove the Jews from the Middle East.” For this end, a family member of later President Yasser Arafat, leading pan-Arabist Mohammed Amin el-Husseini (1893-1974), met with Adolf Eichman to discuss a ‘Master Plan’ for the alignment of the ‘Arab World’ with Nazi Germany. In fact The history of the Middle East would have been completely different and a Jewish state could never have been established if the Germans and Arabs had joined forces.
As suggested above, a number of Nazi’s fled or/and found employment in the Middle East, Case Study P.2:
But also in other Muslim countries, for example in Turkey, plots went far to explain how past glories degenerated into today's tribulations. Thus when in 1913 The Young Turks (or, more formally, the Committee of Union and Progress, CUP), deposed, the Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamit II this was explained as a Jewish Conspiracy which would have next inspire the Armenian Holocoast. While all evidence points to the Young Turks being primarily made up of Turkish-speaking, Muslims, even the British ambassador in Istanbul, Gerard Lowther, insisted that the movement was inspired and led by Jews and Freemasons. Middle Eastern Christians first picked up these European notions, then passed them along to Muslims. Already in May 1909, the Syrian Central Committee, a Paris-based Christian group favoring French rule in the Levant, wrote about Jewish and Masonic leadership of the Young Turks; the committee postulated Zionist efforts to destroy the Ottoman Empire in pursuit of a Jewish state in Palestine. Even today, fundamentalists hark back to the Jewish overthrow of Sultan Abdulhamit II as one of the key events in the decline of Islam in modern times and frequently cite it as a leading act of Jewish perfidy. They portray the Ottoman king as a staunch Muslim whom the Jews had to sideline if they were to take over in Palestine.
Yet similar is also claimed otherwise, Bulent Ecevit, the leftist Turkish leader, accused Washington of encouraging Armenians to make territorial demands on both Azerbaijan and Turkey. Why? Because "the United States is planning to give Armenia a role in the Caucasus similar to that played by Israel in the Middle East." (Paraphrased in Mohamed Heikal, The Sphinx and the Commudar: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Influence in the Middle East, New York, 1978, p. 186.) Nakhichevan's President Haydar Aliyev, seeing Armenia as the U.S. base in the Caucasus, also drew the analogy to Israel. This embryonic parallel to the U.S.-Israel nexus suggests that Israel need not be unique in the Middle Eastern imagination; any non-Muslim can enter the same twilight of puppet and puppeteer.
Each view has its own uses. When ties to Moscow were strong, Damascus stressed the dangers of imperialist plots and variously derided Israel as "a U.S. base," America's "big stick, " and "american U.S. aircraft carrier." (Prime Minister 'Abd ar-Ra'uf Kasm, 17 May 1980.) In contrast, when Damascus sought to improve relations with Washington, it blamed "world Jewry" for subverting American decision making. "The United States does not have a policy of its own in the Middle East," but blindly follows directives issued in Tel Aviv. Similarly, Sa'd Jum'a, a Jordanian prime minister known for his pro-U.S. views, found it convenient to blame Washington's policy on Zionist agents, whose "constant efforts mislead the ordinary American citizen."
Each explanation has other uses, too. The imperialist thesis helps explain away Israel's military success against the Arab states. As the British writer, David Pryce-Jones observes, "to have been defeated by Jews is humiliating, but to have been defeated by a conspiracy of all the powers is clearly unavoidable."
But again neither the imperialist or the Zionist interpretation is original to the Middle East; both come from Europe. The notion of Israel as a tool of imperialism goes back to Lenin and the early Bolshevik state. A Soviet document from July 1919 called Zionism" one of the branches of the imperialist counter-revolution " (Quoted in Ran Marom, "The Bolsheviks and the Balfour Declaration 1917-1920," The Wiener Library Bulletin, 29, nos. 37/38, 1976: 22.)
Yet Middle East politicians still today routinely echo the ideas of Hitler but at times also Lenin, the men who initiated this century's most appalling political experiments. In keeping with the origins of these ideas, leftists tend slightly more to fear an imperialist plot, while those on the right worry more about Zionist conspiracies. Leftists find it natural to make common cause with the Soviet, Chinese, and other bastions of anti-Americanism. The rightist emphasis on the prominent role of American Jews, especially their presence in business, the media, and politics, makes it natural for them to link up with anti-Semitic groups in the West.
Having it two contradictory ways at once recalls The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf Those writings portray Jews as both the capitalists and middlemen who steal from the workers and as socialists who threaten the bankers.
In December 1997 Mustafa Tlas, the Syrian Defense Minister, cited the Protocols as an explanation for the warm relations between Israel and Turkey.19 On June 23, 2001, the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram wrote:
What exactly do the Jews want? Read what the Ninth Protocol of "The Protocols of the elders of Zion" says: 'We have limitless ambitions, inexhaustible greed, merciless vengeance, and hatred beyond imagination. We are a secret army whose plans are impossible to understand by using honest methods. Cunning is our approach, mystery is our way. [The way] of the freemasons, in which we believe, cannot be understood by those among the gentiles who are stupid pigs…
The ultimate goal of the freemasons is to destroy the world and to build it anew according to the Zionist policy so that the Jews can control the world … and destroy the [world's] religions…"
Even where the Protocols are not mentioned by name, the theme they express-- Jews are engaged in secret machinations to "take over the world," or alternatively, that Jews already control the world-- appear to pervade the Arab worldview. Take for example:
Al-Ahram, November 14, 1998
"The Jews have been behind all the wars and their goal was corruption and destruction. This is their means of getting rich quick after wars."
A-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, July 2, 1998
Everywhere, the Jews have been the subjects of hatred and disdain because they control most of the economic resources upon which the livelihoods of many people are dependent… There is no alternative but to say that the success of the Jews is not coincidental but rather the result of long years of planning and a great investment of effort in order to obtain their wretched control over the world's media…
Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, November 6, 1997
We must act on the international level in the framework of a detailed information plan which will expose the Zionist-Colonist plot and its goals, which destroy not only our people but the entire world.
Damascus Radio, September 2, 1998
[Jewish] history is full of devising conspiracies, even against the countries in which they live, whose citizenship they bear and whose benefits they enjoy….
Anyone interested in documents from World War I can learn about the role German Jews played in organizing conspiracies to undermine Germany, harm its economy and weaken its capabilities, which deteriorated to the extent that it led to its defeat. Whoever studies these documents can also understand why the hatred of Jews consequently increased so severely.
In fact it also seems to be on the root of many post 9/11 conspiracy theories. For example a columnist in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafd wrote that the "Zionists" must have known in advance that the September 11 terrorist attacks were impending, but refused to share that information with the United States "in order to sow disputes and troubles" throughout the world. "Proof is found," he added, "in the Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion."3
Steeped in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fantasies furthermore, Islamists believe that America, Israel, and other "crusader" nations have plotted to destroy Islam, and that they are called upon to defend it. Islamism and Islam exist of course also of other phenomena, not least to say that there are two major groups; shi’ites (example Iran) and Suni (example Saudi-Arabia).
1) Hassan Sweilem writing in the Egyptian government-owned weekly October, 17 June 2001 (Arabic).
2) Goebbels Diaries entry for 13.5.1943, publ. by Elke Foehlich Muenich 2004.
3) 20BBC World Monitoring, September 24, 2001.