Conspiracy theories: Critique and mythology

Conspiracy theories: Critique and mythology
Critiquing conspiracy theories does not negate the existence of conspiracies.
5 min read
20 Jan, 2015
Conspiracy theorists look to the shadows when they should look within [Emad Hajjaj/al-Araby]

Political action, as with other types of human action, seeks to achieve a goal departing from an existing situation, including those which arise from the overlap of wills and the confluence of other human deeds and their effects.

It assumes it is possible to reinforce voluntary, wilful actions towards the fulfilment of the desired end. And since people rarely act alone, more often than not many actors are involved in planning - or conspiring - to reach a common objective.

This objective will indeed be common if it is based on awareness of a common interest, or if those driven to it have a common sense of belief or purpose.

Critiquing "conspiracy theories" does not negate the existence of conspiracies. It is not the intention of such critiques to deny the existence of agency or collective planning in any given attempt to achieve a goal.

Real conspiracies

For example, most historians know that Israel had planned the 1967 war, seeking to take advantage of the blunders of the Egyptian leadership, some of which were the result of misjudging the enemy's capabilities. The Egyptians were ignorant of Israel's plans, failing to see that the enemy could exploit the series of mistakes they had been making.

Indeed, Egypt did not ask for the withdrawal of the international peacekeepers in order to start a war but rather as part of the one-upmanship with other Arab states and its bid to get rid of the effects of the 1956 Tripartite Aggression. The mistake the Egyptians made here was in taking steps that had different goals to those stated.

Other blunders sprang from disputes between Nasser and his Chief-of-Staff and Defence Minister, Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer, and the misalignment between the military and political leadership in the country, among other things.

When the Egyptian leadership sought to correct the impression that it was trying to start a war, neither the Americans nor the UN Secretary-General responded to Egypt's explanations. The Israelis planned, possibly with American connivance, to take advantage of the supposed casus belli of Egypt's closure of the Straits of Tiran, to hit the regime in Egypt.

Israel's plan was based on self-interest. It envisaged no prospect of compromise, seeking to crush its foe mercilessly.

     Those who believe in [conspiracies] see real facts as a mere facade, or a shadow of the original and 'real' story unfolding behind them.

Egypt, on the other hand, had no clear goal. Its plans focused more on the image of the leadership than the interests of the country. And they were doubly misguided, being based on false assessments of both the situation in Israel and of the state of the Egyptian armed forces.

In the war of 1967, we have an example of a successful plot versus a misguided one that combined wishful thinking, bad military war planning and lack of artifice.

No serious scholar would claim that there were no conspiracies before the 1967 war, or during it and after it. Moreover, with such major events, serious historians are always on the lookout for the declassification of new documents to discover new information that had not been taken into account before.

Mythical conspiracies

On the other hand, the "conspiracy theory" is more a myth than a theory, so it can't be critiqued rationally as such. Myths are the opposite of theories.

A theory's logical structure would allow it to be verified and falsified. But myths do not allow us to do the same because they are metaphorical, carrying certain meanings and connotations, or are a narrative of hidden, behind-the-scenes intrigue or hidden narrative.

Those who believe in them see real facts as a mere facade, or a shadow of the original and "real" story unfolding behind them. In this interpretation, all circumstances, timings, aggrieved parties and beneficiaries can be adduced as "proof" of the conspiracy.

In practice, myths about the existence of conspiracies behind all major events vitiate theoretical thinking that could otherwise reveal true conspiracies. Myths negate the need to analyse social and political actors and their goals and motivations.

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Indeed, all such factors are assumed to be superfluous, as though people have no agency, purpose or rational interests but are merely instruments animated by the conspiracy itself.

These conspiracies begin with the forces of good and evil and end up assuming the presence of an omnipotent diabolical enemy, be it the United States, the Jews, Communism or "radical Islam" as a standalone entity.

The attacks in New York in September 2001 are, from this perspective, a plot put into action by hidden hands to implicate Arabs and Muslims and pave the way for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Or, from the perspective of the Neocons, it was a plot by radical Islam against Western values and democracy.

Similar reasoning sees the United States as behind the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis), as though there is no reason for anyone to have grievances against the US occupation of Iraq, the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, or anybody else who tormented Iraq and the Iraqis.

It is as though there are no social circumstances or beliefs in our societies that could produce people like those who are trying to find a meaning for their lives by signing up with IS.

What we mean by "conspiracy theory" here is the mythology that would have it that behind every human deed lies a secret plot hatched by an omnipotent and diabolical enemy.

Such "reasoning" blocks out self-criticism as much as it does facts, motives and goals that political and social actors have, whether states, groups or individuals. And of course it ignores the role played by misconceptions, ideologies and creeds in driving people to act.

Ultimately, conspiracy theories prevent the uncovering of real conspiracies - plans based on specific interests and motives to achieve real purposes.

Critiquing conspiracy theories seeks to pay attention to reality, including real conspiracies, and determine the extent of our vulnerability to them.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.