Myth of the 'Arab mind' confuses as it comforts
This week the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen published an article under the headline The captive Arab mind in which he argues that Arabs are weakened by their love of conspiracy theories and thus condemned to eternal "conspiratorial victimhood". Among the examples cited was a comment attributed to the governor of South Sinai, Mohamed Abdul Fadil Shousha, that the shark attacks on tourists on the beaches of Sharm el Sheikh could perhaps have been organised by the Israeli Mossad.
There are several things wrong with the theory of the captive Arab mind. The first is the phrasing. A 1976 book, The Arab Mind, by the late ethnographer Raphael Patai, served as the handbook for the US military in abusing Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. One idea in Patai's book was that a weakness of the Arabs was a sensitivity to being shamed, particularly by being stripped naked. Hence, the disgusting pictures of heaps of naked prisoners lorded over by female guards.
To combine the words "Arab mind" with the word "captive" is to add insult to injury. But worse than that, such cultural and ethnic generalisations may have been fashionable in the 19th century but these days they do not belong in a serious newspaper.
This is not to say that the failings of political culture in Arab countries should be off limits. Since the defeat of 1967, Arab intellectuals have debated the causes of "backwardness". There are too many issues to list, but here are just three: the history of colonisation of the Arab world and the all too genuine conspiracies of France and Britain a century ago; the distorting effect of economies based on oil exports; or the responsibility for defending the purity of Arabic - the language of the Quran - which has resulted in separating formal discourse from the common tongue.
Moroccans and Iraqis may share some of the same problems but to lump them together in one "mind" is a ludicrous simplification. No one would dare to write about the "American mind" without pointing out the great divide in the US between left and right, east and west, and countless other distinctions.
What about the Iranian, Russian or Peruvian minds? Wherever countries are weak or have a democratic deficit, conspiracy theories flourish. Even the comfortable Swiss are not immune: they proved by banning the construction of minarets that they fear the Islamic world is conspiring to overturn their way of life.
To take one recent example closer to home, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared that the leaked US diplomatic cables were a form of organised "psychological warfare" against his country.
This is an egregious example of conspiratorial thinking. We do not know whether Mr Ahmadinejad actually believes this untruth. Perhaps it was just an attempt to muddy the issues by blaming the old enemy.
What is undeniable is that conspiratorial thinking is growing around the world, and most notably in the US. Almost 20 per cent of Americans believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary.
Conspiracy theories have long fascinated the Americans - think of the all the books and films about the assassination of John F Kennedy. Thousands of Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens. More seriously, distrust of the federal government and suspicion of the United Nations are deeply ingrained in American political culture.
But something new is happening. Conspiracies have now reached the heart of the political process. This is partly due to the internet, which has robbed the newspapers and network news bulletins of their role as gate-keepers of the political agenda.
In the past, the anger, resentment and envy of the common man was kept out of the mainstream media. Now it finds its voice on the internet, and increasingly in a media landscape where entertainment - and thus strong emotion - is the pull. The trend is exemplified by the angry, tearful right-wing anchor Glenn Beck on Fox News for whom Mr Obama is a racist and a socialist.
Americans have good reason to be angry and fearful. The US engine of wealth is sputtering: the only way that Americans have been able to live the dream of increasing prosperity is through debt and financial trickery. The world has changed. Social mobility - the mechanism which raises the poor to middle class comfort - has declined to levels below some European states. A financial oligarchy controls politics.
These unpleasant facts are increasingly apparent to Americans. One response is to blame the president, because he is visible. He cannot conceivably be responsible for all the changes which have prompted America's relative decline. This is as illogical as an Egyptian official blaming the tourist industry disaster on Israeli-guided sharks.
The Pew Research Centre, which carried out the research which established that 18 per cent of Americans believe Mr Obama is a Muslim, found that this belief was growing fastest amongst the president's strongest opponents, that is, conservative Republicans. The more they oppose the president, the more strongly they believe him to be a Muslim. The twisted logic goes like this: America is in decline; the president must be to blame; therefore he must be secretly a member of an "un-American" religion.
This is not an example of the "American mind" at work. Rather it is an all too human response. It is exactly the same logic as we see in the words of the governor of South Sinai - but far more dangerous. Egypt, it should be noted, has not gone to war against Israel over the remote-controlled shark attack, nor has it thrown up its hands in despair and admitted defeat. It has done the logical thing and called on the world's shark experts for advice and taken steps to protect bathers. But that does not fit into any theories of the Arab mind.
There is one thing that unites conspiracy theorists all over the world: a feeling of powerlessness to control events. This is common in Arab countries, wherever states are either weak and open to manipulation by foreign powers or lacking in democratic accountability. Now the Americans, used to being top dog, are beginning to feel their destiny swayed by forces they cannot control.
We shall see more of this, as the world is becoming a more complex place where global economic trends or climate change are overwhelming sovereign states. We shall all have to live with this sense of being pushed around. Just don't single out the Arabs for blame.
Published: December 24, 2010 04:00 AM