The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged conspiracy theories
ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Meanwhile, others decided to argue for their conspiracy theories. To ex-Jihadist talking head Nabil Naeem that means just saying that ISIS received training from US marines in Jordan in 2011. To Ahmed Moussa, the proof lay in the quality of the video and the clearly Al Jazeera HD camera it was shot with. There is also the logo in the video, which Adeeb noted looks a lot like Al Jazeera's (it’s Arabic calligraphy, they all look alike). And then there is the fact that they put the victims in orange jumpsuits, which are, of course, unavailable outside US prisons.

To Tamer Ameen the proof was ISIS referring to the Prophet as “the one who was sent by the sword,” which just so happens to confirm the Western belief that Islam was spread by the sword. So they must be Westerners! (This still beats Amany el-Khayat’s proof, which was  that “Arabs don’t use acronyms.”)

Hoping to stand out, the Lebanese Tony Khalifa decided to fake a beheading on air just to prove that it can be done. Personally, Khalifa believes that ISIS brutally kills people all the time, but he finds the most recent videos, especially James Foley and other Westerners’, to have been tampered with. Strengthening his doubts were the interviews with the families of the victims, who appeared too calm, “like their children were still alive.”

El-Mehwar TV, on the other hand, got itself a hacker with a soul patch, wearing a jacket over bare skin. He claimed to have hacked a jihadi forum (which they pretended was ISIS’s official website) and server, and to have watched the unedited version of the 21 beheadings, where the victims were screaming despite their mouths being mostly closed and that there was an un-ISIS-like woman on a crane and an American-looking film crew. “I can tell the nationality (of a person) from their appearance” he explained.


Despite calling for the crucifixion of ISIS members and saying they are a Zionist conspiracy, Al-Azhar has angered folks by stopping short of calling them apostates.  

“Quit. May God would have mercy on you,” Adeeb told the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, who argued that so long as the ISIS fighters apostates continue to adhere to the shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) and not denounced Islam, he can't label them as apostates. 

This sparked many accusations that Al Azhar are terrorist-lovers. To prove it, Ibrahim Eissa read excerpts from an Al-Azhar’s high school book stating plainly that fighting infidels is the duty of every sane, physically able man, while Youssef el-Husseiny read the story of Abu Bakr, senior companion of the Prophet, allegedly burning an infidel, from Al-Azhar’s al-Badyah wa al-Nahyah by Ibn Kathir -- the same story from which ISIS derives justification for its burning of the Jordanian pilot.

Meanwhile in the Muslim Brotherhood camp, journalists took the videos themselves in stride and remained firmly focused on their own grievances.  

“I will not respond to the idiots that are calling (the burned Jordanian pilot) a martyr,” said MB-affiliated cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim. He will also not grace us with his take on whether or not burning people is permissible. He just wants to know if it is so bad to burn people, why didn’t mainstream media say anything about the protesters the security forces supposedly burned during the dispersal of the MB’s Rabaa sit-in?

Ghoneim also spent 14:30 minutes of his 15 minute video commentary on the beheadings of Coptic Egyptians talking about how unfairly large monasteries are in Egypt and how Copts should stop complaining about the obstacles they face to building churches, since they never overflow out of them like Muslims do out of mosques -- before angrily reminding his viewers of how Copts conspired to get rid of Muslim president Mohamed Morsi. Ghoneim then said he had no comment on the beheadings. 

The last conspiracy theory comes from Al Jazeera’s guest and Syrian rebel  Shiekh Hassan el-Dighym. After explaining that Sunni ISIS is the result of oppression by the Alwaite-Shia government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Shiaa government of Nour al-Maliki in Iraq, the Sheikh said that the group is made up of tortured Sunni Muslims and prisoners broken out of prison, who are manipulated and controlled by undercover Shiaa intelligence officers from Iraq.

Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

The more serious concern with these conspiracy theories is that they are being used to prepare the ground for a wave of further prosecutions, and this time not just of Islamists. The charge of تخابر takhaabir ("sharing intelligence" with foreign powers) which has been brought against Morsi but also against April 6 activists is so vague as to be applicable to almost any contact between an Egyptian and a foreigner.  

Sameh Naguib, a member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists, has written an in-depth analysis of the "foreign plot" phenomenon: 

The objective of linking the Islamic movement and its resistance (whether armed or unarmed) to foreign conspiracies is not onlto demonise thIslamistanothers whoppose the counter-revolution. It is also a promotional campaign falsely claiming the army’s patriotism and its leader’s symbolic link to Gamal Abdel Nasser and the era of national liberation.Unfortunately many Liberals and those formerly on the Left are contributing to this campaign. An example is this statement from the Egyptian Communist Partythat refers to “Islamic terrorism and its links to the Zionist American alliance that aims to break-up and dismantle our nation and the region with the aim of redrawing the map within the framework of the Greater Middle East project that places the United States as the world leader, Israel the strongest nation in the region and weakenthstatof Egypt. Threst of thArab nationwoulsimply be tentacleof the Turkish-Israeli American alliance.” The statement also refers to the necessity of “standing by the police and the army in its war against terrorist religious fascism” etc. It is as though it were a battle of national liberation and Sisi had just nationalised the Suez Canal. 
The Socialist Popular Alliance Party suggests the same regarding “the conspiracy” and ends one of its recent statements with “working together to confront the Zionist American plot.” All the above is in stark contrast to events on the ground. The main backers of Sisi’s bloody campaign are the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the one hand and Israel on the other. In other words, the main centres of counter-revolution in the Arab worlds over the last six decades and the staunch backers of the Mubarak regime.