The US and IS: Weaving conspiracy theories in reverse
I have always assumed that the kind of conspiracy theories so popular in the Arab public sphere are nothing but a cheap substitute for a critical, secular analysis of how the world operates and, more importantly, how global geopolitical interests define state policies.
And so, what often passes as conspiracy theories in the Arab world is little more than the consequences of innuendoes and intellectuals laziness.
Of course, this does not mean that the Arab world has not been, or is not now, subject to the interests and designs of colonial and neo-colonial powers: This is as true of the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement as it is of the struggle over Syria currently underway.
But to explain how foreign actors approach the peoples, lands, and resources of the Arab regions by reference to timeless conspiracies has always struck me as ahistorical and unintelligent.
It also denies Arab actors their own very destructive agency: Take the case of the US-led response to Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait as a perfect example.
Often explained in the Arab world as a kind of conspiracy against a country endowed with abundant human and natural resources, it makes more sense to explain it with reference to Saddam's failure to understand and appreciate the logic of the global capitalist economy, and the Arab world's place in it as a source of uninterrupted cheap resources.
|With Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka in the White House, welcome to a new world of conspiracy theories in reverse|
But with Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka in the White House, welcome to a new world of conspiracy theories in reverse.
Take, for example, the unfathomable insistence by the Trump-Bannon-Gorka triumvirate to use the term "radical Islamic terrorism" to describe the global threat that transnational salafi-jihadi actors such as al-Qaeda or Islamic State group (IS) represent.
Contrary to past administrations who typically shied away from linking salafi-jihadi terrorist groups with a lived religious experience as diverse and hybrid as the Islamic one, they argue that the term itself is in fact part of the very battle against 'terrorism'. This is problematic for a number of reasons, however.
The term itself is an immature, orientalist misnomer that demonises whole but different Muslim-majority communities, many of whom have borne the brunt of the most brutal and primeval kind of salafi-jihadi violence.
|Take, for example, the unfathomable insistence by the Trump-Bannon-Gorka triumvirate to use the term 'radical Islamic terrorism'|
It is also a useless illocutionary tool in what is necessarily a complicated and overlapping material and immaterial battle to demystify the appeal such violent groups have on those who join them in the quest to avenge their socioeconomic and psychological marginalisation.
As Scott Atran reminds us of those misfits willing to fight till the end for IS: "The mainly young people who volunteer to fight for ISIS unto death often express a joy that comes from bonding with comrades in a glorious cause – involving great shared risk and shedding of blood, which has always been the strongest glue in war – as well as a joy that comes from the satiation of anger and the gratification of revenge."
Defeating the transnational threat of salafi-jihadi "terrorism" has more to do with addressing the political economic, psychological, and geopolitical sources of this "anger" and this will to "revenge", than insisting on the essentially "Islamic" nature of their brand of "terrorism".
|Read more: 'Radical Islam', the default demon|
Finally, this terminology defeats the very claim Gorka often makes, that "It's not a war with Islam. That would be absurd. It is a war inside Islam."
Just how deploying such homogenising language empowers the good guys in what is supposed to be an ideational war for the true meaning and interpretation of Islam, is not clear. Far from it, it is the very terminology that fuels conspiratorial theories in the Arab world of a homogenous "West" that hates "us", and makes the reductionist claims about a clash of civilisations a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another conspiracy theory in reverse is Stephen Bannon's obsession with what he considers a Muslim invasion of western countries, or what he refers to as "this Muslim invasion," a view shaped by his reading of Jean Raspail's racist novel, The Camp of the Saints.
|Strange as this worldview may be, it is a perfect example of a racist identity politics that manufactures the necessary 'other'|
According to this strange, conspiratorial view, the waves of helpless refugees fleeing socioeconomic deprivations and wars are nothing but infiltrators bent on invading western countries and destroying their cultural identity.
Aside from their bland, racist undertones, such diabolical scenarios skip over the bloody colonial history imposed by developed capitalist countries on those of the global South, in which the latter have always been perceived as nothing more than sources of cheap natural, human, and more recently financial resources or, alternatively, consumer markets and battlegrounds for neo-imperial powers.
|These kind of conspiracy theories in reverse will only fuel more such theories in the Arab and Muslim public spheres|
So, it is fine for colonial and neo-colonial powers to visit death, trauma, and destruction upon the peoples of the global South in the name of "development", "civilization", and "democracy", but when the latter seek refuge from hunger, poverty, and wars in western metropolises they are labelled invaders!
Strange as this worldview may be, it is a perfect example of a racist identity politics that manufactures the necessary "other" so important to rally the ethnic crowds at times of great transformations.
It is this kind of cultural nationalism that shapes Trump's Muslim ban, in its different versions, reflecting Bannon's conviction that "the West" is at war with "Islam", and that the best way to defend the civilisational fortress is by building higher cultural barricades and keeping the barbarian hordes at bay, or under watch at home.
To be sure, these kind of conspiracy theories in reverse will only fuel more such theories in the Arab and Muslim public spheres.
The "we told you so" voices will claim that the "West" hates Muslims, that they don't differentiate between "terrorists" and peaceful believers, and that "Islam" and the "West" are incompatible and at war, and that they inhabit radically opposite cultural spheres.
And so, instead of dialogue and mutual help to overcome common problems, we are besieged by the "anger" and will for "revenge", of what are otherwise enemies bent on taking us all down the slippery slope of cultural and religious radicalisation and confrontation.
Avoiding injurious reductionist claims and staying loyal to critical historical analysis is the best response to the conspiracy theories manufactured by both Bannon and IS.
Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).
His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67
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.