By Mustafa Akyol
October 28, 2016
I recently travelled to Park City, Utah, as a guest of the Cato Institute, for a talk on Islam and liberalism. In the airport, as I waited for a flight back to Istanbul, where I live, I picked up a copy of The New York Times and read an article about the accusations raised by the Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, against his Democratic rival. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks,” the article quoted Mr. Trump saying, “to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”
For a moment, I thought I was already back in Turkey, reading about our president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
That is because much of the Turkish news media, which is devoted to praising our powerful president, is also keen on the conspiracies about “global financial powers.” Nearly every problem the government faces, from public protests to the troubles in the Middle East to the failed coup attempt this summer, is the work of global cabals. In a similar vein, Mr. Erdogan’s political rivals are accused of holding secret meetings with these evil forces that aim to destroy Turkey’s sovereignty. That is why Mr. Erdogan claims he is leading “Turkey’s second war of liberation,” after its real liberation a century ago.
But even if Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theory sounds similar to Mr. Erdogan’s, there is still a significant difference. For Mr. Trump, the global conspiracy is cooked up against the United States to destroy its sovereignty. For Mr. Erdogan and his supporters, the global conspiracy is cooked up by the United States to destroy Turkey’s sovereignty.
So Which Is It?
The truth, of course, is that is that the plot against America and the plot by America are both imaginary. Such vast political conspiracies tell us more about the conspiracy theorists than about the real world they claim to describe.
For one thing, all conspiracy theorists send a message that flatters their audience: We make no mistakes; we are responsible for no failures. Instead, all of our problems are orchestrated by evil forces that want to harm us. Conspiracy theories help deflect self-criticism and place blame — in fact, hatred — onto others for our problems. They also keep problems from being solved, because the only people who can solve them — us — are relieved of responsibility.
Conspiracy theories also flatter the theorists themselves: They are exceptional because they can perceive what everyone else is either too blind to see or too afraid to admit. Their ability to decipher clandestine schemes testifies to their genius. The fact that they fearlessly call out and challenge the schemers testifies to their courage.
Mr. Trump seems to be taking full advantage of all these messages. By blaming shadowy figures like “global financial powers,” “the establishment” and the news media, he is telling his supporters that all their problems come from the outside. All they need to do is to rally behind a saviour, himself. He is also entertaining an additional conspiracy theory that will cover him if he loses the election, which seems increasingly likely. By declaring the vote “rigged” against him, he recasts his possible defeat as a victory. This was a real hero, people will say, who challenged both global and national cabals — no wonder conspirators lined up to ensure he was defeated.
It is no accident that Mr. Trump’s affinity for conspiracy theories goes hand in hand with his authoritarian instincts. As Karl Popper, the great liberal thinker of the past century, pointed out, conspiracy theories are hallmarks of authoritarianism. Fascists were obsessed with conspiracies, as are Communists and political Islamists. In Russia, Vladimir V. Putin’s propaganda machine, too, is busy inventing endless plots against the motherland.
What is ironic in the world today is that conspiracy theorists in different societies are obsessed with the same scapegoat — globalization — but interprets it as a conspiracy only against their side.
In Turkey, for example, the pro-Erdogan news media sees in globalization a plot against not just Turkey, but also Islam. Almost every day, these media outlets declare that the West (in particular, America, Britain and “Zionism”) is trying to distort the teachings of Islam, corrupt the values of Muslims and dominate the Middle East with new colonial wars. Good Muslims, they add, must defend themselves against this Western conspiracy.
When I read some of the statements from Mr. Trump and his supporters, I see a mirror image. They talk of an Islamic conspiracy against the West. Every Muslim is a potential jihadist, they say, and Muslims want to impose Shariah in the West, to raise black flag even in the reddest parts of America. Good Americans, they add, must defend themselves.
In fact, there is a global conspiracy against neither Islam nor the West. Globalization has just forced different societies to interact more than ever — and many people are scared by what they see on the other side. Populists all over the world began taking advantage of those fears, telling us that we should be even more fearful still.
What we actually need, instead, is to understand other societies, while healing and improving our own. And to do that, we need responsible leaders who solve real problems, rather than cheap heroes who invent imaginary ones.
Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”