American conspiracies on the Middle East
From the canyon walls of Manhattan Island to science-fiction California, coastal and urban America is more diverse and sophisticated than almost anywhere else in the world.
As for inland America, many of the stereotypes ring true, but that is not the end of the story.
We gave a talk about our Syria book at a college in Colorado Springs - a conservative city boasting an Airforce Academy, many retired soldiers, weapons factories and evangelical churches. It also houses the 47-acre headquarters of Focus on the Family, a media and lobbying organisation which campaigns against abortion and promotes creationism.
Before we spoke, a woman introduced herself as "an international poet". She told us she cared about Syria very much. "It's so obvious what the solution is," she said. "An international Sunni-Shia peace conference."
Later, a crag-faced man pursued the same theme. "They have to solve their religious problems," he decreed. "At base, this is about Sunni and Shia. It's the same conflict since the start of Islam."
I tried to explain that the conflict at base was between a revolution and a tyrant, and it didn't go back all those centuries, though of course actors on all sides had instrumentalised sectarianism to serve their interests, particularly in the regime's case, to divide and rule. Those in power will always exploit communal tensions when they need to disarm a challenge, and every society suffers such tensions. "In America, for example, there are racial divisions. Isn't that so?"
A profound and lasting silence in response to my question. Wrong audience for this.
My co-author Leila overheard a shop-front conversation. "That guy's bringing Syrians in," said one man, perhaps referring to Obama, under whose rule a mere 2,500 Syrians have been granted shelter. "Well they won't be coming here," his companion replied. "And if they do we'll soon make them wish they were back at home in Syria."
This version of WASP America was not at all comforting, yet we were staying with friends who didn't fit the ethno-ideological bill, and who were happy living there, moving unharassed within their own networks. Even inland, very different people coexist. Communities and their subgroups, in one way at least, enjoy more autonomy than they would in Europe.
Later we visited Madison, Wisconsin.
We were hosted very kindly, and in ways that seemed deeply Protestant. "Thank you for your witness," one woman told me, though she didn't attend our talks and therefore didn't know precisely what we were witnessing.
We gave a talk in a radical bookshop, then answered questions.
The first came from somebody who believed the US had installed Khomeini in Tehran. Another focused on The New Yorker's recent report incriminating the Assad regime in war crimes. "Why are they talking about it now?" she wanted to know. "They're planning something. It's boots-on-the-ground, regime change, something..." This habit of thought - whereby the real torments of far-away people are dwarfed in impact by the imaginary machinations of the only state that matters, America - is depressingly common.
A third speaker argued (against my cynicism) that you don't need to believe in conspiracy theories, you only have to read the writings of the Project for a New American Century which call for Syria to be dismantled. Surely that's the cause of what's happening now.
This was a strange analysis that prioritises the fantasies projected by a neo-con, Zionist thinktank (which folded in 2006) over the current concrete acts of millions of Syrians (and Russia and Iran). Part-way racist too, as if white people's words enter the cosmic fabric so inevitably as to determine brown people's history for years to come. Syrian writing, protests and battles mean nothing in comparison.
That's what I said in response. The speaker left the bookshop.
Our hosts kept bending our ears. "Most Americans don't realise they live in a dictatorship," one said, "that every move they make is being watched". Someone warned Leila to beware of Amtrak (the train company), because once you've been in one of their carriages they have your image, they follow you everywhere. Someone else drove off in a car with a 9/11truth.org sticker stuck on its bumper.
A few days later, Democracy Now, America's flagship leftist channel, spent an hour sycophantically interviewing journalist Seymour Hersh, a man who can't be bothered to make up sensible names for those who feature in his conspiracy theories (Hersh told Russian TV that Syria's rebels were allied with a group named "sharm al-sharma", subsequently derided online as "shawarma al-shawarma").
Of course, conspiracism is not just an American problem. After a talk in Montreal, Canada, a student approached: "Why didn’t you talk about the Rothschild bank?"
"What should we have said?"
"That the Rothschild bank controls all global finance, and Assad refused to do business with them, so they attacked him."
Wrong on so many levels, I didn't know where to start. I said something about Assad's neo-liberalism, and his obvious desire to do business with the world's banks.
The boy's reply was swift: "Why didn't you talk about the Qatari pipeline?"
Neither is conspiracism an issue only with rustic, or poorly educated, or youthfully enthusiastic types.
Much of the British left is convinced that the revolutionary communities of Damascus gassed themselves in August 2013, that there's a Western regime-change plot afoot against President Assad, that Putin is the victim in the Ukraine, that the Turkish coup attempt was a false flag operation.
It was the left which spread the idea that Syrian revolutionaries were "all al-Qaeda" before the right applied the slur to Syrian refugees. And the right is as prone to its hyper-nationalist and Islamophobic conspiracies as ever.
Perhaps there's more excuse for conspiracism in the Middle East, where many suffer through poverty, dictatorship and war. Its increasing prevalence in the educated, prosperous West is more difficult to explain.
Could it be that technical and economic developments are undermining not just our political culture but even our intelligence? The huge expansion of media production, moving our fantasy worlds as well as our historical and personal memories onscreen and online, means we need to use less of our brains.
No need to remember a phone number or a line of poetry, no time to mull over a novel. We follow updates and let the algorithms do the thinking. Because most of us are more comfortable now with mobile phones and websites than books. Books are generally fact-checked before publication, while internet success is measured only in clicks. Books demand reflection and sustained concentration, an attention to nuance. With the new technology, by contrast, gratification - informational, emotional, sexual - is only a thumb-click away.
There's nothing more gratifying than a total unified theory which explains the whole world in under a minute. And nothing easier. You don't need to study detail, there’s no need for rigorous logic, not even for coherence. As with Trumpism (or Trumpery?), you only need a slogan, a meme.The internet is growing into our collective brain. An internet search for "the illuminati" provides almost 13 million results. "Syrian revolution" comes up with about half that (and half of those will be conspiracist approaches). This is the problem we're up against.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author, with Leila al-Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, and author of The Road From Damascus, a novel.
Books he has contributed to include Syria Speaks, Shifting Sands, and Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. His book reviews and commentary have appeared in the Guardian, the National, Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast and others, and he often comments on Syria on TV and radio.
He blogs at qunfuz.com and pulsemedia.org
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.