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Obama versus Muslim conspiracy theories

His major speech in Cairo is directed at an audience that often blames difficulties on America and Israel. A bold move might help regain trust.

By Jacob Bronsther / June 3, 2009


Of all the challenges President Obama faces when he addresses the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, the hardest to overcome may be the Muslim fascination with conspiracy theories.

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It goes beyond Saudi schoolbooks that teach as fact the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a demonstrably bogus Jewish "plot" for world domination) and Tehran's sponsorship of a Holocaust skeptics conference. The 2004 tsunami? That was possibly caused by an Indian nuclear test, ably assisted by experts from the US and Israel, according to Egyptian newsweekly Al-Osboa. According to the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project, majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, and Turkey do not believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. And when asked in the same survey what is most responsible for Muslim nations' lack of prosperity, about half of those in majority Muslim countries responded "US and Western policies" either first or second, beating out "lack of education," "government corruption," "Islamic fundamentalism," and "lack of democracy." 

Conspiracy theories threaten American diplomacy because when Mr. Obama promises X Thursday, a great percentage of Muslims will believe he really intends Y or that some shadowy organization will ensure Z. Every culture exhibits some interest in conspiracy theories (see "The Da Vinci Code"), but they are especially resonant in Muslim contexts, and Western leaders need to find a way to mitigate this problem. The first step is to understand its origins.

One explanation is Muslims' historical experience with double-dealing, divide-and-conquering colonial masters. But there is a deeper rationale for religious Muslims (and most Muslims are extremely religious by Western standards). This is the cognitive dissonance – the mental disturbance caused by the collision of contradictory ideas – stemming from the Muslim world's relative lack of prosperity and power.  

In Islam there is a necessary link between religiosity and worldly power and success. The prophet Muhammad founded a religion and an empire, which lasted for a millennium. Jews and Christians, by comparison, experienced existential crises early in their histories and, as a result, developed narratives whereby God regularly tests his people with hardship or exists in a realm separate from man's tribulations – the Kingdom of Heaven. Not so in Islam.

As a result, many Muslims ask themselves: How can Christians, Jews, and atheists dominate us – the greatest community, the one most connected to an active God, the one with a right to rule the world in the name of justice? Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi, one of radical Islamism's founders, sermonized: "Your honor, which no one dared to touch, is now being trampled upon.… You are Muslims and yet are slaves! This situation is impossible as it is for an object to be white and black." 

There are three general paths out of this cognitive dissonance for Muslims.

The first is to secularize, to argue that Islam doesn't entail earthly power. The unsuccessful Arab nationalists, communists, and liberals in the Muslim world have taken this view, holding in various ways that Islam is separate from politics.