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Why Is the Middle East the Land of Conspiracy Theories?

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 10, 2011 12:45 PM

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No one knows exactly what the death of Osama bin Laden will mean for the future of global terrorism. One thing, however, is certain: there will be tons of conspiracy theories about it. Matthew Gray of Foreign Affairs rounds up some of the best conspiracy theories and asks: Why is the Middle East so open to them in the first place?

Only a few days after bin Laden's death, some extraordinarily ornate conspiracy theories have already appeared, not just on the internet but in newspapers. One theory, Gray writes, has

proposed that bin Laden had been collaborating with Washington all along. Another one had it that bin Laden died years ago but that his body had been frozen and retained for later use by the United States; still others suggested that he remained alive.... Some have even suggested that the world’s most wanted terrorist was not real but an American invention.

There are conspiracy theories everywhere, of course -- but why are they so quick to sprout in the Middle East? In part, Gray points out, it's simply because the region "has been subject to an unusually high number of actual conspiracies in the past": "The overthrow of Iranian President Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 was driven by a secret U.S. and British plot to remove him, and the 1956 Suez War was the result of a covert British-French-Israeli agreement struck in France." Conspiracy theories are also a natural response when you live in an authoritarian state: you're powerless, and in many ways the government really is conspiring against you.

Unfortunately, if you've been cast in a conspiracy theory, there's not much you can do about it. Counterargument is exactly what the conspiracy theorists expect from you -- in fact, it may make the theorizing more intense. The best thing to do, Gray concludes, is ignore the conspiracy theorists: "Most anti-Catholic and anti-Mason conspiracies in the United States have atrophied this way."

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