Arab conspiracy theories and the distrust of science

Arab conspiracy theories and the distrust of science
From flat earth theory, to meteorites serving as God’s punishment of demons, Emad Moussa discusses some of the conspiracies that have been developed and justified by some through Islamic scripture, and how this is linked to a distrust in authority.
7 min read
22 Aug, 2022
Captured in infrared light by NASA's new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via Getty Images)

NASA is the keyword, the rather negative go-to cliché to discredit every new astronomical discovery. If it is NASA, so to speak, it is a ruse, a front to the masonic conspiracy to reshape the world and destroy religion.

This is the argument that an increasingly visible group of Arab/Muslim conspiracy theorists have adopted. You see them on Arab astronomy forums and social media groups, as well as in the comment sections of renowned Arabic news networks.

While their demographics stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf, Moroccan commentators seemed to dominate the conspiracy theory line, and are the most vocal in using religion and peculiar interpretations of the Quran to refute scientific facts.

The claim you hear repeatedly, the Quran says the earth is flat, and that NASA is deceiving the world by saying it is round.

''Muslim/Arab flat-earthers mindlessly trample upon a long and rich legacy of Islamic scientific empiricism, especially in astronomy. Many Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, building on ancient Greek scripts, established that the earth is a sphere. They also employed scripture, relying on its multi-layered and multi-levelled content, to substantiate their findings.''

A more flamboyant claim, space is merely a dome and the stars are just ornaments. Meteorites, they say, are God’s way to chastise the demons who try to penetrate the earth dome and ascend into heaven.

Then… James Webb’s images came out, prompting a whole new level of trivialisation of astronomy that made ancient mythologies look like a scientifically sound endeavour.

This was made worse by Webb’s images being published near the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing; it simply vindicated the scepticism and denialism. After all, conspiracies are never random and rely on algorithmic and numerical patterns. 

Flat-earth and other related conspiracy theories are nothing new or limited to certain ethnic or religious groups. The modern claims to flat-earth only developed as an organisational creed in 1956 when Samuel Shenton, a British conspiracy theorist, founded the International Flat Earth Research Society.

Shenton replaced empiricism and rationalism, the product of over 2000 years of accumulative scientific quests, with the 19th-century so-called “Zetetic Method,” developed by a flat-earther, and relies only on sensory observations and intuition. 

Part of Shenton’s cosmology was based on his interpretation of Genesis, that Earth was a flat disk surrounded by an impenetrable wall of ice (now they claim it is guarded by NASA to stop people falling off the edge).

This effectively means that space is an illusion and gravity does not exist, and that inevitably makes Webb’s images a deception. The fact that $10 billion was poured into the project and nearly 10,000 specialists worked on it only confirms, not refute, NASA’s deep investment in shaping our perception of reality.

Arab and Muslim flat-earthers share almost identically, the various beliefs on flat-earth with other flat-earthers “globally.” But they differ in applying an exaggerated religious interpretation to their convictions. They have turned the Quran into a book of physics, and used it to refute any scientific facts that do not perfectly literally and conceptually align (as they see it) with the scriptural description of natural phenomena.

The problem with this approach is that it gives an absurd theory a sacred, transcendental dimension, making disbelieving in it an act of kufr, apostasy. Almost Daesh-like thinking, but in science.

Worse yet, Muslim/Arab flat-earthers mindlessly trample upon a long and rich legacy of Islamic scientific empiricism, especially in astronomy. Many Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, building on ancient Greek scripts, established that the earth is a sphere. They also employed scripture, relying on its multi-layered and multi-levelled content, to substantiate their findings.

Now that we have physically ventured outside our world and observed it from beyond, none of the scientific, religious, or even observational assumptions should matter. After all, the evidence is as real as breathing, or is it?

Despite all the evidence, it is still deeply frustrating trying to reason with flat-earthers, especially the religion-oriented ones, using standard scientific methods. Scientific denialism is less to do with empirical evidence and more to do with distrust in authority and cognitive bias.

Like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, flat-earth is a conspiracy theory driven by a general distrust in the standard institutions. Disillusioned with the political reality, conspiracy theorists view the world through pessimistic filters, where all authority figures and institutions, including the scientific community and NASA especially, are there just to exploit them. Socially at least, Kelly Weill in her book Off the Edge, makes a strong case that believing the earth is flat - much like other conspiracy theories - has sent many of the believers into a rabbit hole of  social alienation and broken family ties.  

For the same reason, people are willing to believe in ideas that do not align with the dominant cultural narrative, which is seen as a shadow of the “unseen forces at work,” aka, the government and its arms like the media and the educational system.

Overexposure to such ideas, thanks to social media and Youtube, creates a sense of community among the conspiracy theorists; as such, generates an illusion of consensus and validity.

What is more, social media recommendation algorithm has been known to drive people with some interest in fringe beliefs to more like-minded individuals and groups; as such, heightening their belief system and increasing their numbers and online visibility.

This is certainly true for Arabs whose distrust in the mostly autocratic authorities is high. It is accentuated by the views that corrupt governments are antithetical to the correct religious practices of the people.

But not all flat-earthers are poorly educated or easily impressionable. Some know enough physics to throw around some terminology and scientific facts, providing an illusion of fluency.

When confronted with the fallacies and inconsistencies in their argument, they still maintain their beliefs and become excessively argumentative, often shifting the focus from the subject to the person who challenges their beliefs, classic ad hominem.

Today marks one month since @NASAWebb’s first image reveal! 🥳

On the right is that image from the infrared observatory, showing galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.

Hubble’s view on the left demonstrates the complementary nature of the telescopes across a broader range of wavelengths!

— Hubble (@NASAHubble) August 11, 2022

This is a result of cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where people who possess minimal knowledge of a subject tend to overestimate their cognitive abilities. Inevitably, this produces, and is heightened by, an underestimation of one’s own ignorance. It is a case of ignorance failing  to recognise itself.

English philosopher Bertrand Russel once described this cognitive paradox as the world’s whole problem, “…where fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

For Arab conspiracy theorists who use scripture as a supreme scientific authority, ignorance acquires a divine value and becomes sacred. 

Some say that flat-earthers are a dangerous fringe cult on par with anti-vaxxers who jeopardise public health. Others see them as a harmless minority that we should ignore.

What is sure, however, is that it is probably fruitless trying to dissuade most of them. Engaging them only emphasises their sense of marginalisation and victimhood; ergo, confirms their biases. Also, do not suggest that they take sleeping pills to avoid sleepwalking and then falling off the edge of flat-earth. Many of them do not believe in pharmaceuticals.

Above all, whatever you do, do not take your frustration out like Buzz Aldrin who punched a conspiracy theorist who verbally abused him, saying the moon landing was fake.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.