By Raza Habib Raja
A recent PEW research centre poll found out that even a decade after 9/11, there is no Islamic country where even 30% of the Muslims believe that Arab Muslims executed 9/11 attacks
I vividly remembered what happened in Swat valley around two years ago. Militants in a series of aggressive steps took over the entire Swat region near Islamabad, the federal capital. As they kept on annexing town after town by force, stories started to emerge about their degrading attitude towards women, burning of schools and steps to curb even the basic liberties of life. In fact there was even a flogging video which showed a woman being lashed in public for the “crime” of coming out of her house unaccompanied by a male family member. Despite the clear evidence, a majority of the TV watching Muslim population of Pakistan simply refused to believe it. Every headline was labelled as Western propaganda being carried out through their funded NGOs and their own media. In fact even when a clear evidence was presented in the form of video, the entire local media’s thrust was on proving it as a fake. The entire nation seemed to be in denial and media were actually pressurizing the government NOT to take any action against militants as according to Pakistani population they were nothing but victims of western propaganda. Then militants forced the government to sign a deal which would enforce strict Islamic law in the region. As the deal was being signed, the TV anchors were actually appreciating the step and trying to spin all the criticism as western propaganda. Literally no TV channel was interpreting it as a deal brought through coercion. In fact, none of them were even critical of the hard-line contents of the deal itself, which if successfully implemented, would have resulted in virtual elimination of basic liberties and complete enslavement of women. At that point the USA repeatedly criticized the deal and tried to persuade the government not to sign it.
However, the government under huge domestic pressure was unable to muster collective political will and therefore ceded to the demands of militants. The next day after signing the deal, the leader of the movement, Sufi Muhammad, spoke to a crowd of thousands in Swat and threatened to attack Islamabad if his version of Islam was not implemented across Pakistan. Since the speech was broadcasted live and there was no way that the people could deny the actual words spoken, there was a huge shock. Finally people understood that Swat was indeed under militants. Although this led to a belated army action but people instead of blaming the hard-line Islamic militants started to point fingers at the USA!!!
Suddenly the “freedom fighters” of Islam became paid agents!!!!
What happened in Swat is a classic example of how denial fuelled by the conspiracy theories ends up supporting the militants.
Today the Muslim world is plagued by this conspiracy theory-mindset. Although conspiracy theories are prevalent everywhere but the extent to which these dominate the Muslim world is mind boggling and as the above example shows, can lead to catastrophic results. Even today, a huge percentage of Muslims do not believe that 9/11 attack was conducted by Arab Muslims. In fact a very recent PEW research centre poll found out that even a decade after 9/11, there is no Islamic country where even 30% of the Muslims believe that Arab Muslims executed 9/11 attacks. And it even includes apparently very secular countries like Turkey where a whopping 73% of Muslims believe that 9/11 was not conducted by Arab hijackers. In most of the world conspiracy theories belong to the fringe whereas in Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world these have enveloped the mainstream discourse.
Conspiracy theories are inherently geared towards shifting the blame to outside forces and stop ourselves from self-introspection and by doing so they invariably benefit only the extremists and their backers as we start looking towards imagined foreign enemies instead of looking amongst ourselves for the root of the problem. A classic case is of Baluchistan where we think that everything has been planned by India and the USA. This way of thinking completely absolves us from looking at the real problem: State’s denial of the rights to Baluchs.
So what may be the reason for this? The reasons in my opinion are manifold and some are embedded in our cognitive framework while rest are the outcome of international events and the actual behavior of foreign players.
First of all, conspiracy theories appeal to our fundamental and deeply held conviction that a Muslim cannot do anything which would bring a bad name to Islam and lead to adverse consequences to the Muslim community. Moreover, apparently the more fundamentalist you are in your appearance, harder it is for the public to actually believe that you are capable of these actions. This may explain why it was difficult for the public to believe that Taliban were behind anything and all was the ‘US propaganda’. It also makes sense as to why they are now interpreted as “agents” or bifurcated between “good” and “bad” Taliban to explain once it has become clear that in Swat militants were indeed behind atrocities.
Secondly, we always link consequences with origination. Since terrorism “benefits” the West because it defames Islam and gives them a justification to retaliate, therefore, in our logic it must have been solely planned by them.
In Pakistan, the nuclear issue is extremely sensitive and somehow or the other assumed a central place due to our inherent insecurities and also crisis of identity. Moreover, the nuclear arsenal is perhaps the only thing which actually elevates Pakistan to at least a factor to reckon with at the global stage. It’s no wonder that every terrorist activity is then conveniently linked with the global conspiracy to destabilize Pakistan with the ultimate objective of taking hold of nuclear arsenal. Now there is merit in this thought that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would always be giving the US and the West sleepless nights but to give these amazing spins that al-Qaeda is planted by the USA and suicide attacks are planned and carried by the USA alone is really mind boggling and self contradictory. Because if Al-Qaeda and Taliban are indeed planted then military action in FATA would actually eliminate these agents and deprive the USA of the justification to take military action to neutralize the nuclear assets.
It somehow escapes otherwise extremely rich imagination of the conspiracy theorists that it becomes extremely difficult to take action against even the identified militants due to our deeply held unquestionable and contradictory convictions. If the U.S. goal is to destabilize Pakistan through suicide bombings and at the same time the identified militants are absolved of their crimes and labeled as victims of mere American propaganda, then we are willingly letting the US agents go unpunished! We due to our mindset actually allow the terrorism (whether it’s due to home grown militancy or U.S. conspiracy) to take roots and flourish. When suicide attacks were taking place, we were pressurizing the government not to take action in the troubled areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa by claiming that it was mere U.S. propaganda and war would be a U.S. war. Now assuming that those militants were indeed U.S. agents (which they have suddenly become according to conspiracy theorists after Nazam-i-Adl), we have actually been preventing action against the agents ourselves.
Thirdly, the conspiracy theories also owe their existence (though not the extent of their weirdness) to foreign powers’ actual way of dealing which has always been oppressive and suspicious. The flimsy case of war in Iraq has merely strengthened and worst still apparently provided some sellable legitimacy to the conspiracy theorists. Whenever there is any question to authenticity to fantastic theories, the Iraq war and US general way of handling crisis is cited as justification. As a result self contradictory theories which brand militants as U.S. agents and yet resist government crackdown by labeling it as U.S. war, find acceptability in the public.
Any society has to indulge into an honest intellectual discourse at the time of crisis. Unfortunately, we as a nation not only resist it, but are completely blinded to our own faults. Blaming each and everything to grand conspiracies and branding those who demand that we introspect ourselves also as “traitors” or “baighairats” is not going to lead us anywhere but more deeply into this bottomless pit.
Raza Habib Raja is an economist and currently in USA for studies. He has been writing regularly for various publications including Huffington Post, Dawn, Express Tribune, PakTea House and Chowk.com. His interests include Pakistan affairs, reformation of religion and development disciplines. His believes in a tolerant and democratic Pakistan. He is also a co-editor at Pak Tea House.