Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

The second is to pin blame on unfaithful adherents. Radical Islamists argue that if true Muslims are granted great power, then contemporary believers must be Muslims in name alone. Only by returning to the pure faith, which they interpret wildly into a totalitarian ideology, will the practical problems disappear.

The third solution – compatible with the first two, and the easiest one to adopt – is conspiracy theories. If Muslims are the preeminent community and deserve great success, evil forces must be suppressing them. Muslims will rise again, the argument goes, once they purge themselves of these shadowy foes.

Westerners often perceive Islam as a millenarian cult, while in fact it's a rather practical religion. Social failure is so hard for many Muslims to swallow because Islam guarantees prosperity and justice. Conspiracy theories rationalize this failure by placing the blame apart from Muslims themselves and safeguarding the necessary connection between Islam and earthly success. Coupled with the real threats outsiders have posed, the theories seem reasonable to many Muslims.

This worldview, importantly, is not unique to radical Islamists. I spent a year studying the Muslim community of Mauritius, an island-nation in the Indian Ocean. I spoke to many liberal Muslims there, people who worked to create Mauritius's effective and inspiring multicultural democracy. They often introduced conspiracy theories to explain away perceived Muslim failings.

All of this makes it difficult for Obama to speak directly to Muslims without them twisting his words and motivations into an American plot to destroy or at least dampen their communities and faith.

Success in the war on terror – the day when radical Islamism has no access to significant power – requires mainstream Muslims to combat that ideology aggressively. But that won't happen until they perceive US foreign policy to be less threatening than radical Islamism. The problem, however, is not entirely one of perception and psychology, because American foreign policy has, in fact, buttressed corrupt leaders and waged numerous wars (just and unjust) in the Muslim world.

Obama's diplomatic goals for the Muslim street ought to be humble and long term. He should strive to make it more difficult and less reasonable, from the Muslim perspective, to blame their difficulties on America (and Israel). His message will neither escape nor break the conspiracy filter. Yet some headway on both fronts is possible. This requires altering policies and rhetoric – without sacrificing American security.

 On the policy front, he is constrained by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but when he reiterates to Muslims on June 4 that America is not opposed to Islam, he ought to back that up with something real. One bold step would be a pledge of US funding for many poor Muslims to go on hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, one of their religious obligations. This would astonish the Muslim world. 

Such proposals might enable Muslims to trust America a bit more, and begin to realize that their problem is endemic corruption and lack of education, rather than America or the Jews.

This process of gaining Muslims' trust will be exceedingly difficult, in large part because conspiracy theories are in the Muslim cultural DNA. Nevertheless, American security demands that we court mainstream Muslims successfully, so they can feel secure enough to begin the process of dismantling radical Islamism.

Jacob Bronsther, a law student at New York University, writes for ThePublicPhilosopher.com . As a Fulbright Scholar, he spent a year studying the Muslim community of Mauritius.

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