Conspiracy theories in the Arab world

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Conspiracy theories are a prevalent feature of Arab culture and politics, according to a 1994 paper in the journal Political Psychology.[1] Prof. Matthew Gray writes they "are a common and popular phenomenon." "Conspiracism is an important phenomenon in understanding Arab Middle Eastern politics ..."[2] Variants include conspiracies involving Western colonialism, Islamic anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, superpowers, oil, and the war on terrorism,[3][4][5][6] which is often referred to in Arab media as a "War against Islam".[2][4][5] Roger Cohen theorizes that the popularity of conspiracy theories in the Arab world is "the ultimate refuge of the powerless",[7] and Al-Mumin Said noted the danger of such theories in that they "keep us not only from the truth but also from confronting our faults and problems..."[8] The spread of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist conspiracism in the Arab world and the Middle East has seen an extraordinary proliferation since the beginning of the Internet Era.[4]

Gray points out that actual conspiracies such as the 1956 plot to seize control of the Suez Canal encourage speculation and creation of imagined conspiracies.[9] After the 1967 Six-Day War which resulted in a decisive Arab defeat, conspiracy theories started to gain traction in the Arab world. The war was perceived as a conspiracy by Israel and the United States—or its opposite: a Soviet plot to bring Egypt into the Soviet sphere of influence.[10] Thomas Friedman notes the numerous conspiracy theories concerning the Lebanese civil war. They "were usually the most implausible, wild-eyed conspiracy theories one could imagine ... Israelis, the Syrians, the Americans, the Soviets, or Henry Kissinger—anyone but the Lebanese—in the most elaborate plots to disrupt Lebanon's naturally tranquil state."[11]

Jewish conspiracies[edit]

The Anti-Defamation League lists conspiracies about Jews and Zionists including spreading poisons (Jan 1995, Al-Ahram), spreading AIDS (Al-Shaab), blood rituals (June 1995, Al-Ahram), leading an international conspiracy against Islam (March 1995, Al-Ahram), and that the Holocaust is a myth (Dec 1995 – Feb 1996, Egyptian Gazette).[12]

Conspiracy theories hold the Jews responsible for killing American Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and causing the French and Russian revolutions.[13] Zionists are seen as a threat to the world.[13] A widespread conspiracy theory after the September 11 attacks blamed Israel and Mossad for the attacks.[14][15][16][17]

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous hoax document purporting to be a Jewish plan for world domination, is commonly read and promoted in the Muslim world.[18][19][20]

Conspiracy theorists in the Arab world have claimed that ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in fact an Israeli Mossad agent and actor called Simon Elliot. The rumors claim that NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal this connection. Snowden's lawyer has called the story "a hoax."[21][22][23]

In early 2020, according to Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports, there have been numerous reports in the Arab press that accused the US and Israel of being behind the creation and spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as part of an economic and psychological war against China. One report in the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Watan claimed that it was no coincidence that the coronavirus was absent from the US and Israel, despite the US having had at least 12 confirmed cases. The US and Israel have also been accused of creating and spreading other diseases, including Ebola, Zika, SARS, avian flu and swine flu, through anthrax and mad cow disease.[24]

Animal-related conspiracy theories[edit]

Animal-related conspiracy theories involving Israel are prominent, alleging use of animals by Israel to attack civilians or to conduct espionage. These conspiracies are often reported as evidence of a Zionist or Israeli plot. Examples include the December 2010 shark attacks in Egypt and the 2011 capture in Saudi Arabia of a griffon vulture carrying an Israeli-labeled satellite tracking device.[25][26]

Writing in The Times, James Hider linked the responses to the shark incident with those to the vulture incident and ascribed the reactions in Arab countries to "paranoia among Israel's enemies and its nominal friends", adding that "evidence of Mossad using animals is scant."[27]

Gil Yaron wrote in The Toronto Star that "Many animals undoubtedly serve in Israel's army and security services: dogs sniff out bombs and alpaca help mountaineers carry their loads. [...] But tales about the use of sharks, birds, rodents or, as has also been claimed, insects in the service of the military are more the fruit of imagination than hard fact."[28]

American conspiracies[edit]

Different groups of Egyptians have accused the United States of supporting and opposing Mohamed Morsi.

Following Egypt's 2012 presidential election, an Egyptian television station[29] stated that the United States government and Egypt's ruling military council had rigged the election in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi.[30] The theory was seen as fueling a 15 July 2012 attack of tomatoes and shoes by Egyptian Copt protestors on the motorcade of the visiting US Secretary of State.[31][32] The widespread view that America was conspiring to support Morsi prompted President Barack Obama to note that conspiracy theories abound both alleging US support for and against Morsi.[16][17][33][34] The rise of the Islamic State gave rise to conspiracy theories that it had been created by the US, CIA, Mossad, or Hillary Clinton.[35][36] The same happened after the rise of Boko Haram.[37][38]

In Commentary, Daniel Pipes accused prominent Palestinian journalist Said Aburish of attributing the problems of the Arab world "to a vast British and American conspiracy." Reviewing Aburish's A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, Pipes remarked that "outlandish as it may be, the book represents a main line of Arab thinking" and therefore "cannot be so easily dismissed."[39]

Conspiracy theorists in the Arab world have advanced rumors that the US is secretly behind the existence and emboldening of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as part of an attempt to further destabilize the Middle East. After such rumors became widespread, the US embassy in Lebanon issued an official statement denying the allegations, calling them a complete fabrication.[40]

The "War against Islam" conspiracy[edit]

"War against Islam", also called the "War on Islam" or "Attack on Islam", is a conspiracy theory narrative in Islamist discourse to describe an alleged conspiracy to harm, weaken or annihilate the societal system of Islam, using military, economic, social and cultural means. The perpetrators of the conspiracy are alleged to be non-Muslims, particularly the Western world and "false Muslims", allegedly in collusion with political actors in the Western world. While the contemporary conspiracy theory narrative of the "War against Islam" mostly covers general issues of societal transformations in modernization and secularization as well as general issues of international power politics among modern states, the Crusades are often claimed as its supposed starting point.

Other conspiracies[edit]

After the fall of Morsi, xenophobic conspiracy theories have singled out Palestinians and Syrian refugees as part of a plot to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back to power. Pro-Morsi supporters single out Saudis and Emiratis as part of a counter conspiracy.[16]

A common conspiracy theory is about soft drink brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi, that the drinks deliberately contain pork and alcohol and their names carry pro-Israel and anti-Islamic messages.[41][42][43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zonis, Marvin; Joseph, Craig M. (September 1994). "Conspiracy Thinking in the Middle East". Political Psychology. International Society of Political Psychology. 15 (3): 443–459. doi:10.2307/3791566. JSTOR 3791566. Retrieved 28 October 2021.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ a b Matthew Gray (2010). Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World. ISBN 978-0415575188.
  3. ^ Spoerl, Joseph S. (January 2020). "Parallels between Nazi and Islamist Anti-Semitism". Jewish Political Studies Review. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 31 (1/2): 210–244. ISSN 0792-335X. JSTOR 26870795. Archived from the original on 9 June 2020. Retrieved 25 March 2021.
  4. ^ a b c De Poli, Barbara (2018). "Anti-Jewish and Anti-Zionist Conspiracism in the Arab World: Historical and Political Roots". In Asprem, Egil; Dyrendal, Asbjørn; Robertson, David G. (eds.). Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion. Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. Vol. 17. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 321–342. doi:10.1163/9789004382022_016. ISBN 978-90-04-38150-6. ISSN 1874-6691. S2CID 158462967.
  5. ^ a b Berridge, Willow J. (2018). "Islamism and the Instrumentalisation of Conspiracism". In Asprem, Egil; Dyrendal, Asbjørn; Robertson, David G. (eds.). Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion. Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. Vol. 17. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 303–320. doi:10.1163/9789004382022_015. ISBN 978-90-04-38150-6. ISSN 1874-6691. S2CID 201582498.
  6. ^ Jikeli, Günther (2015). "Anti-Semitism within the Extreme Right and Islamists' Circles". In Fireberg, Haim; Glöckner, Olaf (eds.). Being Jewish in 21st-Century Germany. Europäisch-jüdische Studien – Beiträge. Vol. 16. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter. pp. 188–207. doi:10.1515/9783110350159-013. ISBN 9783110350159. JSTOR j.ctvbj7jwc.15. S2CID 183381200.
  7. ^ Roger Cohen (Dec 21, 2010). "The Captive Arab Mind". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Steven Stalinsky (May 6, 2004). "A Vast Conspiracy". National Review. Archived from the original on October 4, 2013.
  9. ^ (Gray 2010, p. 59)
  10. ^ (Gray 2010, p. 60)
  11. ^ Thomas L. Friedman (1998). From Beirut to Jerusalem. p. 36.
  12. ^ "Anti-Semitism in the Egyptian Media". ADL. 1997. Archived from the original on 2013-11-02. Retrieved 2013-08-26.
  13. ^ a b (Pipes 1998, p. 105)
  14. ^ Eric Weiner (Aug 18, 2005). "U.S. Conspiracy Theories Abound in Arab World". NPR.
  15. ^ Fawaz Turki. "Conspiracy theories in Arab discourse". Arab News.
  16. ^ a b c Peter Schwartzstein (Sep 12, 2013). "Egypt's Latest Conspiracy Theories Target the Country's Syrian Refugees". The Atlantic.
  17. ^ a b Tim Marshall (Aug 19, 2013). "Egypt 'Conspiracies' Are Paranoid And Stupid". Sky News.
  18. ^ Wakin, Daniel J. (October 26, 2002). "Anti-Semitic 'Elders of Zion' Gets New Life on Egypt TV". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  19. ^ "2006 Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-08-23. Report by Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House. 2006
  20. ^ "The Booksellers of Tehran" Archived 2017-04-10 at the Wayback Machine, The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2005
  21. ^ "'Password 360' Conspiracy Theories Linking CIA To Isis Actually Bring A Serious US Denial". The Huffington Post. 14 August 2014. Retrieved 29 September 2014.
  22. ^ Hassan, Mehdi (5 September 2014). "Inside jobs and Israeli stooges: why is the Muslim world in thrall to conspiracy theories?". New Statesman. Retrieved 29 September 2014.
  23. ^ Baker, Aryn (19 July 2014). "Why Iran Believes the Militant Group ISIS Is an American Plot". Time. Retrieved 29 September 2014.
  24. ^ "Arab media accuse US, Israel of coronavirus conspiracy against China".
  25. ^ "Shark Attack in Egypt? Must Be the Work of Israeli Agents". Discovery Magazine. 13 December 2010.
  26. ^ O'SULLIVAN, ARIEH (6 December 2010). "Egypt: Sinai shark attacks could be Israel... JPost - Middle East". Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  27. ^ James Hider (7 January 2011). "Vulture held as Mossad spy by Saudi Arabia". The Australian.
  28. ^ Gil Yaron (5 January 2011). "Secret agent vulture tale just the latest in animal plots". Toronto Star.
  29. ^ Tawfik Okasha and the amazingly appalling atrociousness of the fellahin
  30. ^ Robert Mackey (28 June 2012). "Military Rulers Fixed Presidential Vote to Install Islamist, 'Egypt's Glenn Beck' Says". The New York Times.
  31. ^ David D. Kirkpatrick; Mayy el Sheikh (13 July 2012). "Egypt's New President Is Being Undercut by State-Run Media". The New York Times.
  32. ^ "US: We did not support particular Egyptian presidential candidate". Egypt Independent. 16 July 2012.
  33. ^ Nordland, Rod (Aug 25, 2013). "As Egyptians Ignore Curfew, Talk of a U.S.-Brotherhood Conspiracy". The New York Times.
  34. ^ Patrick Kingsley (18 Sep 2013). "Egypt: Frenchman dies in police custody amid rising tide of xenophobia". The Guardian.
  35. ^ Peter Weber (September 2, 2014). "America created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Meet the ISIS 'truthers'". The Week.
  36. ^ Inside jobs and Israeli stooges: why is the Muslim world in thrall to conspiracy theories?. Mehdi Hassan. The New Statesman
  37. ^ "African Shia Cleric: Boko Haram attrocity is a conspiracy against Islamic resurgence in Nigeria". Archived from the original on 2012-06-03. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
  38. ^ " Nigeria: Boko Haram Conceived to Destroy Islam - Prof. Bunza". Archived from the original on 2012-02-13.
  39. ^ Pipes, Daniel (1998-09-01). "A Brutal Friendship by Said K. Aburish". Commentary. Retrieved 2022-02-14.
  40. ^ The US, IS and the conspiracy theory sweeping Lebanon. BBC
  41. ^ Israeli sues Coca Cola for containing alcohol
    Globes, Israel Business News, February 20, 2011
  42. ^ Myths & Rumors/Middle East
    Official Coca-Cola website, August 3, 2004
  43. ^ Interview with Hamas MP Salem Salamah - Al Aqsa TV, April 23, 2008

Further reading[edit]