Thursday, May 14, 2009

Propaganda & Conspiracy Theories: Two Case Studies

Al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei (his supporters call him a "grand ayatullah," the highest Twelver Shi'i scholarly rank, though he lacks of the requisite seminary education), supreme leader (rahbar-e jumhur-e Islami-ye Iran) of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

NOTE: I am postponing a planned post about the extreme anti-Shi'i views of Sunni Muslims who follow the Salafi "school" of thought, and particularly [the majority of] Salafi jihadis (militants), as evidenced by their material on the Web. I am doing so in order to address an issue which arose today as I sifted through my e-mail. One e-mail, and the exchanges it led to, stood out as an example of propaganda and the spread of conspiracy theories by certain actors (in this case, state actors) in the Middle East and wider Muslim world. This is certainly not an issue unique to these regions. On the contrary, propaganda has been the hallmark of all state actors, not least of all the United States and Western European countries. The spread of conspiracy theories is also not unique to any particular region (consider the increasingly ridiculous "9/11 truth" movement).

Nonetheless, as
Occident is often questioning or critical of policies and practices employed by my own country, I strongly believe that I must also be critical (as I have often been) of governments (and more often regimes) that rule in the regions that my academic studies have thus far, and in the future, focused on: the Middle East and the Muslim world. My critique should not be misconstrued to be a general "attack" on the citizens of an entire country, nor all members of a particular ethno-confessional group.

I will be discussing an e-mail exchange on a listserv of a mosque in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

The initial e-mail sent to the listserv reproduced and linked-to a story from the web site of Press TV, an international English-language media outlet that is funded by the Iranian government, for which it essentially serves as a propaganda mouthpiece, not unlike many newspapers and media outlets in the neighboring Arab Middle East (e.g., Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the widely-read Saudi newspaper is linked to that kingdom's ruling family).

The specific story quoted was THIS ONE about the speech delivered by Iran's supreme leader, al-Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei in Iranian Kurdistan, a region in the country's western half whose Kurdish population has long sought greater autonomy or even independence from the central government. Almost immediately following the flight of the last king (shah) of Iran and the subsequent Islamization of the broad communal-based Iranian Revolution in 1979, a Kurdish separatist movement was brutally crushed by forces loyal to Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhollah Khumayni and his Shi'i Islamist (Muslims who seek to link their religion with politics) faction.

Khamenei said that the "miserable Salafi and Wahhabi groups who are fed petro-dollars to carry out terrorist acts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere," and those Shi'is who insult Sunni beliefs are "mercenaries of the enemy," whether they know it or not. His remarks are held by many Muslims who do not believe that Muslims could possibly engage in the kind of horrific inter-sectarian bloodletting that has taken place in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other regions of the Muslim world. Instead, the violence is blamed on "foreigners" or their "agents," which usually means the U.S. government, the British government, and/or the Israeli government. Certainly these governments, through their external intelligence services, have long engaged in assassinations and other illegal and intentionally destabilizing acts across the globe during their histories. However, the low-to-mid scale civil war that raged in Iraq during much of 2006-2007, while a partial result of foreign intervention and meddling in the country, was also driven by internal (and external) Muslim actors. Arab Sunni and Shi'i parties, backed by regional powers, engaged in an extreme level of violence against one another in a fight for political and economic power.

Certainly the U.S. has engaged in playing one faction against another, first backing Iraq's large Shi'i political parties, like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and Hizb al-Da'wah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Call Party). Since the "surge" of 2007, it has backed largely Arab Sunni tribal militias, the so-called Awakening Councils (or, in U.S. government speak, "Sons of Iraq"), much to the chagrin of Shi'i politicians. Many Iraqi Sunni groups are supported politically and economically by the region's Sunni regimes, such as the autocracies in Egypt and the monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The SIIC and Da'wa, along with other smaller Shi'i political parties and militias, are backed by Iran. This support, however, is akin to international diplomatic alliances that the U.S. and other countries also maintain, and should not be over-interpreted as "puppet-puppeteer" relationships, as is often done in the U.S. media (particularly with regard to Shi'is in the region and Iran.)

So, in "rebuttal," so to speak, to Khamenei's statement, Salafi Saudi Arabia is not alone in meddling in the affairs of its neighbors and countries further afield (Pakistan, Afghanistan). Since the establishment of a Shi'i Islamic state in Iran in 1979-80, successive Iranian governments have funded, trained, and supplied Shi'i groups across the Middle East and South and Southwest Asia. Shi'i movements and parties in Bahrayn, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan received/receive Iranian support. Iranian attempts to spread their Shi'i revolution during its first years, particularly to countries such as Bahrayn in the Arab Gulf region, failed. Khumayni, ever the tactician, then emphasized Iran's support for all Muslim groups seeking to establish "Islamic" political systems, regardless of sect-affiliation.

The Press TV article then quotes U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton: " '...Let them come from Saudi Arabia and other countries, importing their Wahhabi brand of Islam so that we can go beat the Soviet Union,' she said on the Taliban's creation in the 1980s." History, unfortunately for Press TV and Clinton, interferes.

(1) The Afghan Taliban did not exist in the 1980s, as is often claimed by those on the political left in the U.S. and, apparently, Iranian state media. The movement was formed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in the early 1990s with the support of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

(2) Not all, and in fact probably most, of the non-Afghan Muslims who came to the country during the 1980s to fight the Soviets and their Afghan communist allies, were not Salafis, or "Wahhabis," to use the pejorative term used by the U.S. media and many Shi'is. Salafis themselves do not call themselves "Wahhabis," a name formed from the name of an influential Salafi preacher in 18th century Arabia, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab.

(3) In the same vein, not all of the Afghan mujahideen (Muslim warriors) were Salafis. The vast majority were not. Some commanders, such as the Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the Hizb-e Islami party, later became allies of the Afghan Taliban and their leader, the local Kandahar religious scholar (mullah), Muhammad 'Umar (Omar). Hekmatyar was one of the key mujahideen commanders during the U.S.-supported anti-Soviet jihad (struggle) in the 1980s. Further damaging to Khamenei's rhetoric is the fact that he was granted asylum for many years to live in Iran, until he was expelled in February 2002. By 2003, he had become a vocal and militant critic of continued foreign occupation and involvement in Afghanistan, and is currently believed to be allied with the reconstituted Afghan Taliban and the Pashtun militias active in western Pakistan (the so-called "Pakistani Taliban.")

In response to the initial e-mail, one reader wrote back a question:

"This is what I don't understand: Is it [the article] stating that Hillary Clinton, much as I hold disdain for her and her policies, is publicly stating that the US [sic] regime is supporting Taliban [sic] and Al-Qaeda? It's obvious that they are supporting them, but for her to even insinuate the fact publicly i s [sic] insane. Anyone got an explanation?"

The questioner reproduces what is, based on my anecdotal experiences, an allegation sometimes raised by some individuals, both non-Muslim and Muslim: The U.S. secretly founded and/or financially, and perhaps otherwise, supports al-Qa'ida, and in this case, also the Taliban. Now, certainly the history of the U.S. intelligence services abroad feeds these rumors and conspiracy theories. However, many of those who believe and repeat these theories do so with little-to-no critical engagement with the allegations themselves.

Are we to believe that the U.S. has spent literally billions of dollars and hours on combating an enemy (al-Qa'ida) that is really not an enemy? Would this not be like the U.S. military attempting to dismantle, say, the U.S. Postal Service by sending tens of thousands of troops to "defeat" them? Why is President Barack Obama investing so much money and manpower into escalating the "good" war (soon to be Obama's war, as Iraq was George W. Bush's) in Afghanistan? Why is Obama pressing for Pakistani to launch a massive military assault, currently underway, against similar groups in Pakistan's Pashtun regions?

Also, if AQ is really a U.S. ally/creation, why is it (and its allies) targeting U.S. soldiers, mercenaries, and non-military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why does it produce the propaganda (directed to its enemies) and persuasive (directed to its constituencies) media that it does?

Is it really a lovers' tiff between the two?

In another instance, I had a rather lengthy and uncomfortable discussion with a young South Asian-American engineering student in Northern Virginia who claimed something similar.

The ridiculousness and illogical foundations of these theories are quickly seen by most people. My excursions (ongoing) into the often dark world of Salafi jihadi cyber environments makes me deeply cynical and highly critical about such conspiracy theories, which I see as similar to those equally nonsensical theories peddled by the "9/11 Truth" movement. Al-Qa'ida and its supporters certainly have no qualms about taking credit for the hijackings and terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and I have seen the media to prove it. Dr. Ayman al-Dhawahiri (pronounced "Zawahiri" in Egyptian colloquial Arabic), al-Qa'ida's chief ideologue and #2, even criticized the Lebanese Shi'i political party and resistance group Hizbullah for propagating the theory that the U.S. or Israel secretly executed the 9/11 attacks, alleging that the party was attempting to lessen the "honor" of the terrorists who carried out the attacks.

Also, why did the British Salafi radical group al-Muhajiroun, which sympathized with AQ, produce event fliers titled "The Magnificent 19" with photos of the 9/11 hijacker-terrorists? Strange if they're a U.S. government subsidiary. But perhaps I am the one who is being naïve (sarcasm intended.)

The first respondent wrote back to the questioner:

"Hillary Clinton was saying that we *did* support/create Taliban & al-CIA-duh back in the day, but not *now*. You know, that's the accepted, mainstream, official narrative now. No biggie." [sic]

As I have discussed earlier, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency did not "create" the Taliban. If any foreign (non-Afghan) intelligence service could be said to have "fathered" the Taliban in the 1990s, it is Pakistan's ISI, and even they just took advantage of a local movement and helped it become a "national," and even a regional, "power."

The respondent then writes:

"She [Hillary] was just repeating the old, "We did it to stop Communism and to help free Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. We never dreamed how evil the Islamic fundamentalists could be. All US Foreign Policy is done with the best, most benevolent of intentions, but sometimes we make mistakes... we're not perfect...but we try" line. Of course we all know that's a bunch of rubbish. :-) "

Non-U.S. foreign policy (and in this case, Iranian) is, of course, on the contrary always benevolent and never done out of self-interest [sarcasm intended].

"The fact that we're currently doing similar things is kind of an open secret, but most un-informed people would probably contest that fact. Give 'em a few years and then it'll be common knowledge."

I am sure many uninformed people would contest the respondent's claims. I would also. So do the actual historical facts. The final statement in the quoted part above made me think: What do we mean when we say "common knowledge?" Oftentimes, "common knowledge" is untrue, so perhaps the more accurate phrase would be "common belief." One can "believe" something to be true, when in reality it is not. This is the case with the respondent and the questioner. Sadly, it is not uncommon today for people, particularly extreme nationalists and partisans on whatever side of an issue, to believe whatever they are told so long as it supports their preconceived notions of said issue(s).


Alexander said...

A minor note on transliterating Khamanei's title: it should be rahbar-e jomhur-e eslami-ye Iran. The short 'i' in Arabic words such as "Islam" typically becomes an 'e' in Persian, and the ezaafe changes from -e to -ye after vowels, hence "eslami-ye."

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much, Alexander. Mea culpa. What a silly mistake. Perhaps I should begin posting at normal hours of the day.