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Our Mind And The Conspiracy Theory

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ByTarek Heggy

For any person concerned with the world of ideas, particularly as they relate to the social sciences and the dynamics and distinctive systems of ideas governing different societies, some issues acquire greater resonance than others. An issue that has been at the forefront of my concerns for some years now is the prevalence in Arab societies in general, including Egypt, of the conspiracy theory. As far as many millions of Egyptians and Arabs are concerned, the following propositions have become virtual articles of faith:

* The blueprint for our recent history and present reality was drawn up by the great powers, and what we are now living through is the product of their machinations.

* The powers responsible for this grand design were Britain and France in the past and the United States, aided and abetted by its prot'g', Israel, in the recent past and the present.

* The plans were prepared in great detail by those powers, leaving little room for manoeuvre to those at the receiving end, including ourselves, who had no choice but to follow the course charted for them.

* Accordingly, we bear very little responsibility for what happened in the past, what is happening in the present, indeed, according to some, for what will happen in the future, all of which is the predetermined result of a grand design it is beyond our power to change.

When the element of Israel is added to this theoretical buildup, the picture becomes even more inflammatory and provocative. Moving from generalities to specifics, it is normal from this perspective to see even the landmark events of our modern history as resultants of the plots hatched by the great powers. These include the 1956 war, Syria's secession from Egypt in 1961, the Yemen war of 1962, the June 1967 disaster, the failure to crown the glorious crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973 with the military liberation of the whole of Sinai, President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the Camp David accords signed between Egypt and Israel, the demise of the Soviet Union and the structural collapse of socialism everywhere. By the same token, the emergence of the United States as the sole global superpower, the New World Order, the GATT and many other developments are perceived as the consummation of the plans laid down by the great powers as a blueprint for history.

A paradox worth studying is that this view is shared to varying degrees by the following disparate groups:

* All those who can be classified as 'Islamic' believe profoundly in the truth of the propositions which collectively form the conspiracy theory. The groups in question include the Moslem Brothers, the Gama'at Islamiya, the Jihad and all fundamentalist movements, indeed, even the most moderate of the Islamic trends. It pains me to have to use the epithet Islamic to designate groups that are basically nothing more than political organizations, because this implies that whoever does not belong to those groups should be classified as 'non'- or 'anti'- Islamic. Although I am the first to challenge the validity of this obviously ludicrous implication, I am forced to use what has become the widely accepted terminology to describe these groups. If we had to identify the most devoted adherents of the conspiracy theory, there is little doubt that this dubious distinction belongs to the Islamists.

* All those who can be classified in one way or another under the banner of socialism, from Marxists to socialists, passing through tens of subdivisions of leftist or socialist orientation, including the Nasserites, also subscribe to the conspiracy theory, albeit less rigidly than the Islamists. For while they believe in the theory as a whole and, accordingly, in the propositions on which it is based, their belief is not shrouded in what can be called the spirit of jihad or militancy, nor grounded in anti-Christian feelings as is the case with the Islamists. Of course, the difference in the degree of rigidity of the belief and the fervour of the conviction is due to the theocratic ethos of the Islamic groups and the more scientific, progressive and modern spirit of socialist ideas, even if the failure of those ideas to achieve their aims or live up to their slogans proves that they are inherently flawed.

* The third and final group is made up of ordinary citizens in the Arab world and Egypt, who belong neither to the Islamic school politically nor to the socialist school ideologically, most of whom are inclined to believe in the conspiracy theory and to accept the validity of the propositions on which it rests without question.

It is essential to remember, however, that the reasons behind the adherence of each of the three groups to the conspiracy theory derive from different sources.

* The Islamists, in all their subdivisions, consider that the history of the region is the history of a conflict between Islam on the one side and the Judeo-Christian world on the other. As far as they are concerned, the Crusades never stopped, only now they are being waged not on the battlefield but elsewhere. This group attaches great importance to the Jewish dimension, which it blames for many of the ills besetting the Arab/Islamic world and the disasters which have befallen it.

* The socialist group, in the broad sense of the word, views matters from the perspective of the struggle between what it calls the forces of imperialism and the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world.

* As to the third group, the multitude of ordinary citizens who subscribe to the conspiracy theory, they reflect the climate of opinion created by the information media, many of the key constituents of which are controlled in this part of the world either by the socialist trend or the Islamic trend, and which repeatedly spout the propositions on which the conspiracy theory rests as though they were gospel truth. In societies not characterized by a high level of education and culture, the information media (including the the mimbar, or pulpit, of the mosque) can be used to brainwash and indoctrinate public opinion. It is enough to recall that the ministry of information in some countries was once called the 'ministry of guidance', a clear admission of the function it sets itself, which is to guide and direct. 

Actually, the sources from which the three groups draw their belief in the conspiracy theory are wholly illusory, with no basis in fact, history or logic. The history of the peoples of our region would have been the same, including their subjugation by western colonialism, even if the region had been part of the Christian world. The West did not colonize us because we were Muslims, but for quite different reasons. On the one hand, we were backward and hence susceptible to foreign domination, easy pickings, as it were. On the other, the whole colonial enterprise was motivated in the first instance by economic considerations, and, to a lesser degree, by cultural, or 'civilizational', considerations, which constitute a broader framework than religious factors. Although much can be said to refute the na've view that the region's history with western colonialism can be reduced to a question of religion, it is sufficient here to cite but a few of the many examples attesting to the contrary to realize how widely off the mark this view is. 

Those who maintain that we would not have been colonized but for the fact of our Muslim heritage conveniently forget the dark chapter of our history under the dominion of the Ottoman empire, when the colonized Arab peoples were subjected to the worst kinds of abuse by their colonial masters, despite the fact that both colonizer and colonized belonged to the Muslim faith. Throughout the eighteenth century, our ancestors were in a deplorable state of backwardness, even though they were Muslims occupied by Muslims, the Christian West as yet absent from the scene. The same situation prevailed when the Zionist movement was launched by its Hungarian-born founder, Theodor Herzl, towards the end of the nineteenth century; indeed, we had remained locked in a state of medieval backwardness for more than six centuries preceding the emergence of the Jews as a political force capable of affecting the course of events in any way.

Though in many ways wrong, the socialist reading of our history with colonialism is right in that it approaches the issue from an economic perspective. Certainly the economic factor was the driving force behind the West's imperialist ambitions in the region over the last two centuries. But this was within a framework quite different from that of the conspiracy theory, as we shall explain later.

As to the group of ordinary citizens enamoured of the conspiracy theory, for all that their logic is impaired and cannot stand up to any sort of serious discussion or analysis, it is in a way understandable. For even the most outlandish statement, if repeated often enough, can come to be accepted as true, especially in a society in which half the population is illiterate and the other half displays only a very modest standard of education and culture. Here lack of sophistication provides a fertile breeding ground for the most untenable, demagogical and unfounded assertions to take root and flourish.

To my mind, the real issue is that most of those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory know very little about the nature and mechanisms of the capitalist economy or what is called a market, or free, economy. The essence of capitalism is competition, a notion which means many things, some positive and wholesome, others negative and unhealthy. But given that all the ideological alternatives to the market economy have failed lamentably, wreaking such havoc in the societies which adopted them that they have been relegated to the museum of obsolete ideas, we must under no circumstances let our nostalgia for the past or our emotional reaction to certain aspects of capitalism drive us back into the world of socialist ideas. Those ideas have caused so much loss, damage and human suffering that they have forfeited the right to be given a second chance. Indeed, experience has proved that socialism (both as an ideology and in terms of practical application) is not a viable system of beliefs. 

As we have said before, however, competition, which is the backbone of the capitalist economy, is a notion that carries within it not only positive aspects but also highly negative ones. On the positive side, it works to the benefit of individuals and the enhancement of their quality of life because, by definition, it leads to a process of constant upgrading of the type and quality of products and services, which in turn often leads to reducing their cost or price. On the negative side, it sometimes deteriorates into vicious struggles between the producers of products and services, struggles that can take such diverse forms as driving a rival out of the market, marginalizing the role of others and grabbing the largest share of the market or markets. This feature of the western capitalist system engenders the belief in countries without a long tradition of industrialization and advanced capitalist services that they are the victims of a well-planned conspiracy. 

It is this aspect of competition that I want to cast some light on, because unless we understand it well and accept that it is an inevitable if unfortunate feature of the market economy, unless we devise a strategy to deal with it as a fact of life in our contemporary world, we will not attain any of our goals. The competition to which I am referring here, which is one of the main cornerstones of economic life based on the dynamics of a market economy, was responsible for the wars that tore Europe apart in the last three centuries, indeed, for the two world wars this century has witnessed. 

But after centuries of fighting amongst themselves, the Europeans came to realize in the last three decades that the advantages of putting an end to the strife that had convulsed their continent throughout much of its history greatly outweighed the advantages of allowing a spirit of contentious competition to continue ruling their lives. And so competition in its extreme form was displaced from Europe into other arenas. The rationale now governing competition in Europe, which continues to thrive in many different shapes and forms, is mutual coexistence and consensus on a framework of checks and balances in which competition is to operate.

To better illustrate the point I am trying to make, I would like to draw attention here to a very simple fact, which is that, in an economic system based on competition, the strategic interest of the producer, or seller, is to remain a seller while ensuring that the buyer of his products or services remains a buyer as long as possible, preferably forever. There can be no switching of roles here. This simple principle is the essence of that aspect of competition which many in our part of the world tend to regard as indicative of a conspiracy. Although in a way it does resemble a conspiracy, it is very different in terms of motivation and the rules which determine its inner workings. This law, one of the laws governing competition in a free-market economy, operates within advanced industrial societies. Its application outside those societies is thus inevitable, expected and unavoidable.

In other words, the economic system in force in the advanced industrial countries (now also advanced technologically and in the services sector) is based on unavoidable conflicts fueled by competition, which manifest themselves in endless attempts to capture the largest possible share of the market. This means that the big fish are constantly trying to swallow the little fish. This process and its negative, not to say ferocious, aspects, operates both inside a given society and beyond (where it is liable to be even more ferocious). The terminology and practices of modern management sciences contain many terms and notions that, in the final analysis, serve competition in its various aspects (both positive and negative). While I do not want to bother the reader with a detailed account of this terminology, the analysis given in this article would be incomplete if I did not mention at least some of the principal notions which have become part of the lexicon of modern management sciences in the contemporary world, such as quality management, global marketing, data confidentiality, the plethora of occupational health systems and environmental considerations. These and tens of other recently-coined terms are tailored essentially to serve the interests of the big fish who, by applying them, can successfully swallow the small fish. 

We can now add to the big-fish-eat-small-fish law a new law running parallel to it, which is that the swift and efficient fish will gobble up the fish that are less swift and efficient. The huge conglomerates that have emerged on the global stage in the last twenty years in the fields of industry, services, technology and commerce attest to the growing ascendancy of this new law. It is very important here to distinguish between what we want to see and what we cannot avoid seeing if we do not want to delude ourselves. These laws exist and are fully operational and there is no hope after the demise of socialism of replacing them with laws that can ensure success, abundance and the avoidance of these aberrations (for those who regard them as such).

It must be said that even the most widely-read and highly cultured intellectual would be unable to fully grasp those new realities and laws if his cultural formation is based exclusively on a familiarity, no matter how deep and extensive, with all human and social sciences, but without any knowledge of the modern sciences in the fields of management, marketing and human resources and the tens of new specialized fields which have branched out of them. No matter how deeply a person may have drunk from the tree of knowledge, how familiar he is with the works of thinkers from Socrates to Bertrand Russell, passing though the thousands of names and areas of human knowledge, if his cultural baggage does not include a working knowledge of contemporary sciences in the fields of management, marketing and human resources, he will be unable to grasp the essence of these laws. In a way, he would be like a physicist who devotes fifty years of his life studying physics since the dawn of history with the exception of the last half century. Although he would in such case be well acquainted with the history of the subject, what he knows belongs in a museum of the past and is in no way suitable for the modern world. 

Unfortunately a not inconsiderable number of Third World intellectuals are like our fictitious physicist: they know a great deal but their knowledge does not extend to new areas. Not only that, but these intellectuals continue to engage in lengthy debates in which they use obsolete terms of reference which confirm that they are living in the past, and, consequently, unable to comprehend what is happening around them. Indeed, these obsolete frames of reference stand as obstacles in the way of society's ability to take the only means of transportation that can carry it to the desired destination, or, stated otherwise, its ability to play the game according to the new rules of the game, not according to utopian rules that exist only in the minds of those who remain locked in the past. 

Having come this far in our analysis, we can proceed no further without addressing an issue that is inextricably linked to any discussion touching on the subject of conspiracies and the conspiracy theory, namely, the Japanese phenomenon. In a lecture delivered in Tokyo in December 1966, the author of this article credited Japan with playing a vitally important role in his intellectual formation, explaining that its experience had convinced him that the conspiracy theory, whether imaginary or real, was far less potent than it is made out to be. If one believes in conspiracies, then surely there could be no conspiracy more heinous than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For by definition a conspiracy seeks to inflict injury on the party against whom it is aimed, and there can be no greater injury than the atomic devastation rained on Japan over half a century ago. 

Japan's refusal to remain locked in the spiral of defeat proves that even assuming a conspiracy does exist and that, moreover, it attains its full scope, which is the infliction of maximum damage on the party against whom it is directed, the conspirators cannot achieve their ultimate aim unless the targeted victim accepts to be crushed. Japan has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the atomic blasts to become the main rival of the very powers that seemed, in 1945, to have succeeded in bringing it to its knees.

The most important thing left to say about the unshakable belief in the conspiracy theory that seems to have taken hold of the Arab mindset is that it denotes a complete denial of a number of fundamental principles we must never lose sight of:

* It proceeds from the assumption that while the conspirators enjoy absolute freedom of action when it comes to exercising their will, the parties conspired against are totally devoid of that prerogative. This endows the former with the attributes of motivation, determination, will and the ability to make things happen while stripping the parties conspired against of all these attributes, reducing them to objects rather than subjects, inanimate pawns moved every which on the chessboard of history according to the whims of others.

* It denies the parties conspired against the quality of nationalism while attributing it exclusively to the conspirators.

* It makes the conspirators legendary figures in the minds of those who consider themselves victims of conspiracies.

* It assumes that there is no way the parties conspired against can foil the stratagems of the conspirators, making for a defeatist and passive attitude that runs counter to pride and self-dignity and to the notion that nations, like men, can shape their own destiny.

All that I have written about the conspiracy theory would be incomplete - as well as contrary to my beliefs - if the reader is left with the impression that, first, I believe that conspiracy and conflict are one and the same thing and that, accordingly, I do not believe that conflict has been a constant feature of human history; or, second, that I am denying that conspiracies too have always been a part of that history.

In fact, I am profoundly convinced that human history is made up of a series of conflicts and that, moreover, the world stage today is the setting for numerous bitter and major conflicts. But I believe conflict and conspiracy are two different notions. 

Conflict means persistent efforts by given parties to maintain whatever edge they enjoy over others, or even to expand that edge and the privileges and advantages that go with it. But conflict also means that contradictions are played out in a game that proceeds according to certain rules which differ from one era to the next, so that whoever wants to achieve a position of any prominence must wage the conflict with the tools and according to the rules that will guarantee the optimal results. Here the Japanese model emerges once again as the most salient proof of the truth of this characterization. It goes without saying that conflict is a relatively more open game than conspiracy, and that the degree of ambiguity in which the game of conflict is shrouded (even those of its features that are so ambiguous as to appear closer to magic than anything else) is relatively less than that necessarily surrounding the conspiracy game. Placing matters in the context of a conflict game rather than within the parameters of a tight conspiracy that determines the course of history encourages people to draw on their inner resources of pride, dignity and determination to enter the game as active participants bent on affecting its outcome to their advantage. 

This is very different from the state of mind created by a widespread belief in the conspiracy theory as the driving force of history, which encourages people to adopt a passive attitude in the belief that they have no choice but to bow to the inevitable, albeit with much wringing of hands and loud complaints at the often disastrous results coming their way, rather than rise to the challenge by becoming active players determined to achieve honourable results in the game, even if the cards are stacked against them.The experience of the Japanese, who have waged one of the most ferocious conflicts in human history throughout the last half century, stands as a testimonial to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of great adversity. That is not in any way to imply that history is devoid of conspiracies; indeed, the annals of human history are rife with examples of plots and counterplots. What I am trying to say, rather, is that history is not a general conspiracy but the stage for a fierce and relentless struggle on which those who quietly accept whatever comes their way are relegated to the sidelines. 

Finally, it is necessary to highlight here another disastrous aspect of the rampant belief in the general conspiracy theory, which is that aspect related to undemocratic rulers like some of those now in power in the Third World. 

The undemocratic ruler contributes with his ideas, statements and information media to consecrating the belief in the conspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide his own shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problems and hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to their aspirations, on outside elements, i.e. a general conspiracy, rather than on the real reason, which is the absence of democracy and the existence of rulers like himself who are usually not the most efficient, capable, honest and cultured members of the society these rulers represent. 

The real challenge as I see it is not a global conspiracy but a global conflict, one that is ferocious, violent and dangerous, which nations can only wage successfully if they are properly equipped for it. And they can only be equipped if their leaders are men of vision operating in a climate of democracy through cadres characterized by a high degree of efficiency, ability, honesty and culture. It is impossible to overrate the importance of this last attribute, for without culture there can be no vision. 

In conclusion, it must be said that though the logic of the proponents of the conspiracy theory is based on a patriotic love of country, and though I have absolutely no doubt that they are in fact nationalists who want only the best for their country and people, the sad fact is that, in the final analysis, their absolute belief in the conspiracy theory renders them defeatists and advocates of the line of least resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspired against without making a serious effort to do anything about it.


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