The latest conspiracy theory doing the rounds in the Middle East: ISIS is a front established by the USA to legitimise a reinvasion of Iraq, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is actually a Jewish actor called Shimon Eliot. (Of course the actor was Jewish.) Here’s a sample from the Turkish twittersphere:
IŞİD’ın cia ajanı elebaşı,Al Bağdadi kod adlı Shimon Eliot. Siyonist McCain ile aynı karede. pic.twitter.com/Xy1URpc28U— Taylan (@Avrasyaci89)
Of course, conspiracy theories are hardly unique to the Middle East, and some of the commenters in the comments zone on the Guardian website are hardly less convinced that ISIS is a convenient excuse for the Americans to reinvade Iraq: to be honest Fisk isn’t far off that sort of terrain this week.
But there is something spectacular about the sheer scale of the conspiracies that ordinary people in the region imagine are confected in the world. Provincial Turkey in the weeks after 9/11 was fascinating. Of course, the educated provincial secular élite scoffed at the theories and it was generally a fascinating time to hang out with them and talk about the world. But among the ordinary Mehmets on the Yenişehir omnibus, an awful lot happily believed that “Amerika kendini yaptı“ (America did it itself) and “Hiç Yahudi o sabah işe gitmiş“ (they say none of the Jews went to work that morning). Not all of them believed that sort of tripe, by any matter of means, but a lot.
Hussein Ibish has a brilliant piece, Baghdadi Denial Syndrome, on the atonishing unwillingness among Sunnis, across ethnic and national lines, to believe that ISIS can’t possibly be a real phenomenon. Many refuse to believe that Sunni Muslims could be responsible for the sort of maiming/crucifying/baby-starving antics that ISIS gets up to. In a way, that’s sort of sweet: it’s a counter to the Daily Mail coverage that mutters behind it’s hand, you know, they’re all secretly a bit like Abu Hamza. But it’s still nuts, and damagingly, self-righteously, nuts in that it transfers the blame for all problems to other people like Westerners, Jews and Shi’ites sets Sunni Islam on a non-tenable moral pedestal in the process.
Exactly the same refusal to believe was in operation back in 2001. “Muslims couldn’t possibly have done it”, people would tell you when you hitched a lift with them or chatted in those dingy upper-floor office block pubs that pious provincial Turkish cities specialise in, “Our religion wouldn’t allow us to slaughter 3,000 innocent people. It must have been the Americans themselves. Or the Jews. And isn’t New York full of Jews anyway?”
One can find all sorts of reasons and make all sorts of excuses for the views. One might assess that this is the natural result of never having a free press or a functioning democracy where one’s views counted for anything (although the latter doesn’t explain why so many Turks believe this nonsense). One might, alternatively, believe the sheer irrationality of the behaviour of all the actors in the Middle East over many decades – the Yanks, the Israelis, the Brits and the French, and every state and non-state actor in the Islamic World – makes conspiracy theories seem as plausible as reality.
Either way, it’s going to be difficult to stop ISIS in its ambitions to take over the Sunni world (for that is what their aim is) while most of the Sunni world thinks ISIS is an American chimera run by a Jewish fifth columnist. The tragedy is some of the guys pontificating over their pints in provincial Turkish pubs would pretty quickly end up flogged for their pint and having their fingers cut off for having a cigarette if tomorrow really does belong to ISIS.