Those irrational, misled, conspiratorial Muslims

So-called paranoid conspiracies in the Muslim world are often based more in fact than our derision of them

Published May 26, 2010 9:27AM (EDT)

A man stands as he prays in a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan.
A man stands as he prays in a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan.

(updated below - Update II)

The New York Times this morning has a particularly lush installment of one of the American media's most favored, reliable, and self-affirming rituals -- it's time to mock and pity Those Crazy, Primitive, Irrational, Propagandized Muslims and their Wild Conspiracy Theories, which their reckless media and extremists maliciously disseminate in order to generate unfair and unfounded hostility toward the U.S.:

Conspiracy theory is a national sport in Pakistan, where the main players -- the United States, India and Israel -- change positions depending on the ebb and flow of history. Since 2001, the United States has taken center stage, looming so large in Pakistan's collective imagination that it sometimes seems to be responsible for everything that goes wrong here. . . . The problem is more than a peculiar domestic phenomenon for Pakistan. It has grown into a narrative of national victimhood that is a nearly impenetrable barrier to any candid discussion of the problems here.  In turn, it is one of the principal obstacles for the United States in its effort to build a stronger alliance with a country to which it gives more than a billion dollars a year in aid.

Initially, it's worth asking how these "conspiracy theories" compare to this:  from the front page of The New York Times, September 8, 2002:  

More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today. . . . In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. . . . An Iraqi defector said Mr. Hussein had also heightened his efforts to develop new types of chemical weapons. An Iraqi opposition leader also gave American officials a paper from Iranian intelligence indicating that Mr. Hussein has authorized regional commanders to use chemical and biological weapons to put down any Shiite Muslim resistance that might occur if the United States attacks.

From the front page of The Washington Post, April 3, 2003:

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday. Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting 11 days ago, one official said. . . . Lynch's rescue at midnight local time Tuesday was a classic Special Operations raid, with U.S. commandos in Blackhawk helicopters engaging Iraqi forces on their way in and out of the medical compound, defense officials said.

Brian Ross, ABC News, the week of October 25, 2001:  

[S]ources tell ABCNEWS the anthrax in the tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was laced with bentonite. The potent additive is known to have been used by only one country in producing biochemical weapons -- Iraq. . . . Former UN weapons inspectors say the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994. . . . At the same time those [anthrax] results were coming in, officials in the Czech Republic confirmed that hijack ringleader, Mohammed Atta, had met at least once with a senior Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, raising what authorities consider some extremely provocative questions.

NBC News, April 26, 2004:

Pat Tillman, who gave up the glamorous life of a professional football star to join the Army Rangers, was remembered as a role model of courage and patriotism Friday after military officials said he had been killed in action in Afghanistan. . . . [U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Matthew] Beevers said Tillman was killed by enemy fire, but he had no information about what type of weapons were involved in the assault, or whether he died instantly.

Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, February 10, 2003:

According to several intelligence officials I spoke to, the relationship between bin Laden and Saddam's regime was brokered in the early nineteen-nineties by the then de-facto leader of Sudan, the pan-Islamist radical Hassan al-Tourabi. . . . In interviews with senior officials, the following picture emerged: American intelligence believes that Al Qaeda and Saddam reached a non-aggression agreement in 1993, and that the relationship deepened further in the mid-nineteen-nineties . . . I learned of another possible connection early last year, while I was interviewing Al Qaeda operatives in a Kurdish prison in Sulaimaniya. There, a man whom Kurdish intelligence officials identified as a captured Iraqi agent told me that in 1992 he served as a bodyguard to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, when Zawahiri secretly visited Baghdad. . . . [James] Woolsey, who served as President Clinton's first C.I.A. director, said that it is now illogical to doubt the notion that Saddam collaborates with Islamist terrorism.

Bernard Lewis, Wall St. Journal, August 8, 2006:

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers clearly believe that this time is now, and that the terminal struggle has already begun and is indeed well advanced. It may even have a date, indicated by several references by the Iranian president to giving his final answer to the U.S. about nuclear development by Aug. 22. . . . This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers, January 11, 2002, explaining the treatment of detainees:

I mean, these are people that would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down. I mean, so this is -- these are very, very dangerous people, and that's how they're being treated.

And that's to say nothing about the orgies of "conspiracy theories" churned out on a daily basis from right-wing talk radio, blog outlets, Fox News and even establishment Republicans over the years -- from Iranian computer viruses, Vince Foster's murder, the nefarious Muslim-Leftist alliance, ACORN's omnipotence, and Obama death panels to The Vicious War on Christmas, the DOJ's "Al Qaeda 7," Maoist followers in the administration, Obama's Kenyan birthplace and Islamic beliefs, and the subversive Congressional interns serving at the behest of CAIR.

 * * * * * 

There's little doubt that many Pakistanis believe all sorts of things that are false and that some extremist sectors peddle paranoid conspiracies.  Propaganda is a standard tactic used by political and religious leaders of all types to manipulate their followers, as is casting blame on external enemies for those leaders' failures.  Indeed, it's virtually impossible to find a society free of extremist paranoia, and Pakistan undoubtedly has its share.  But look at the specific beliefs identified by the NYT as proof of how conspiratorial the Pakistanis are, and decide where the real propaganda is. 

First we learn that "no part of the Pakistani state -- either the weak civilian government or the powerful military -- is willing to risk publicly owning [its] relationship" with the U.S., and that "[o]ne result is that nearly all of American policy toward Pakistan is conducted in secret, a fact that serves only to further feed conspiracies."  The NYT specifically cites the fact that "the Central Intelligence Agency uses networks of private spies; and the main tool of American policy here, the drone program, is not even publicly acknowledged to exist."

But isn't exactly the same true in the U.S., where our most consequential acts in Pakistan -- from drone attacks to Special Forces operations -- are ones the U.S. Government will not even publicly acknowledge, let alone debate and describe?  Here's what Hillary Clinton said when asked last December about the deaths of Pakistani civilians caused by U.S. actions in that country:  "I'm not going to comment on any particular tactic or technology."  And the NYT should perhaps check its own front page from yesterday, which detailed a secret order from last fall directing a massive escalation in the use of U.S. Special Forces in a whole slew of Muslim countries -- all without any public discussion, debate, or authorization from Congress.  We're essentially fighting covert, unauthorized wars in multiple Muslim nations -- including Pakistan -- all while the NYT mocks those silly Pakistanis for failing to publicly discuss their own military policies and for believing that the U.S. is engaged in unknown and unseen conduct in their country.

Then the NYT derides some Pakistanis for their crazy "theory that India, Israel and the United States -- through their intelligence agencies and the company formerly known as Blackwater -- are conspiring to destroy Pakistan."  But what the NYT fails to mention is that the U.S. is actually using Blackwater for a wide variety of covert, lethal missions inside Pakistan, as The Nation's Jeremy Scahill has documented at length.  They may not be "conspiring to destroy Pakistan," but they are engaged in "targeted assassinations," "'snatch and grabs' of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan," and "assist[ing] in gathering intelligence and help[ing] direct a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes."  

Given Blackwater's history and the secrecy in which its conduct is shrouded, isn't it more rational to worry about their conduct inside one's country than to ignore it or assume it's benign?  After all, if a foreign country were sending its military and intelligence services inside the U.S. to assassinate our citizens, drop bombs on us from robots in the air, and infiltrate our society with shadowy private contractors -- as we're doing to Pakistan -- do you think we might be projecting intense hostility toward that country and expressing serious suspicions about what else they were doing inside our country?  Is it conspiratorial paranoia or rational self-interest that leads one to think that way?

As further proof of this pervasive myth-making in Pakistan, the NYT article cites the fact that one Pakistani lawyer with a talk show "argues that Al Qaeda is an American invention."  While that's not precisely true, it is a matter of undisputed fact that the mujahedeen who were the precursors to Al Qaeda -- as well as Osama bin Laden himself -- were supported and funded by the U.S. throughout the 1980s, all the way up to the formal founding of "Al Qaeda" itself:

Thousands of Muslim radicals joined the CIA and mujahedeen, including bin Laden, the wealthy son of a Saudi road builder. Though he didn't actually take up arms, he helped build roads and arms depots, using his own funds and CIA money.

"We funded him, we and the Saudis," said Glynn Wood, professor of international policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. . . . Pakistani investigative journalist Ahmed Rashid reported recently that the CIA funded an underground arms depot, training facility and medical center that bin Laden helped build in 1986 near the Pakistan border. There bin Laden set up his first training camp.

As the BBC said in 2004:  "Bin Laden and his fighters received American and Saudi funding" in the 1980s and "[s]ome analysts believe Bin Laden himself had security training from the CIA."  In 2007, Der Spiegel called bin Laden "one of the best customers for the CIA" during that decade. 

In light of all that, what's more irrational and propagandized:  believing that the U.S. was responsible for the birth of Al Qaeda (as some benighted Pakistanis do) or treating that belief as though it's some wild, unhinged, crazed conspiracy theory with no basis in reality (as the NYT today does)?  The same is true for what the NYT castigates as Pakistani conspiracies "infused with anti-Semitism," such as the belief that Jewish and Indian lobbies exert influence on U.S. Government foreign policy.  What rational person denies that such groups -- along with a slew of others -- exert political power in Washington, or that Israel maintains close military and other relations with Pakistan's arch-enemy, India?

It's not until the third-to-last paragraph that the NYT article cursorily acknowledges the clear basis which rational Pakistanis would have for being highly suspicious of American involvement in their country:

There are very real reasons for Pakistanis to be skeptical of the United States. It encouraged -- and financed -- jihadis waging a religious war against the Soviets in the 1980s, while supporting the military autocrat Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who seeded Pakistan’s education system with Islamists.

And, of course, the U.S. propped up that country's oppressive Musharraf regime with massive amounts of aid -- not to mention the small fact that the U.S. invaded and has been militarily occupying two of Pakistan's neighboring countries (one of which shares a large border with Pakistan) for almost the entire last decade.  In sum, the U.S. has covertly played a central role in the internal affairs of the region generally and Pakistan specifically for decades.  In light of that, what's more irrational:  to question what the U.S. is up to or to treat such questions as the by-product of crazed and deranged fanaticism?

Finally, note how the NYT article is framed at the top by a photograph of a Pakistani holding a sign that reads "We Hate America" -- as though the only reason someone might harbor such anti-American hostility is because they've been misled with false claims and conspiracy theories about Our Noble and Magnanimous Land.  That -- about a country where we've propped up numerous oppressive regimes and continue to slaughter civilians via sky robots.  Of all the myths identified by the NYT article, the implicit one conveyed by that photograph -- Pakistanis harbor anger toward the U.S. only because of false conspiracy theories they're being fed -- is easily the most extreme.

This game of Let's Mock Those Crazy, Conspiratorial Arabs and Muslims is as useful as it is common:  recall how only the Paranoid "Arab Street" believed that the invasion of Iraq would lead to permanent American military bases in that country, only for this to be revealed, followed by this.  There is a lot of propaganda, paranoia and myth in Pakistan, along with most places in the world.  But the American media's fixation on pointing to it and deriding it has the principal effect (if not intent) of obscuring the role we play in enabling (and even justifying) those sentiments, along with at least our own equal share of such propaganda and our own media's central role in bolstering it.


UPDATE:  As one commenter suggested, no discussion of how populations are subjected to conspiratorial propaganda is complete without this, from USA Today in September, 2003:


UPDATE II:  For similar reactions to this NYT article, see here and here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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