Saturday, January 29, 2005

They're Paranoid, We're Blasé

Melik Kaylam makes some very interesting points in this article on the lack of response to some of these far out Islamic conspiracy propaganda. These conspiracy rantings are even more far out then the ones on the Democratic Underground board. I know I did hand out a tin foil hat award for one of them. It is high time that some thing was done to counter this out and out bovine excrement. - Sailor


They're Paranoid, We're Blasé
The civilized world needs to answer Islamist conspiracy propaganda.

Saturday, January 29, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

Someone should compile a multivolume History of Ignorance--and deliver it via laser-guided UPS through the windows of radical madrassas and their news-media outlets in the Middle East. The compilation would feature a study of Cro-Magnon-era attempts to make sense of natural catastrophes, continuing through a perusal of Cargo Cults and millennial sects and the like, ending with an admonition that little has changed in our day. As evidence of the latter, the study could cite the astounding post-tsunami conspiracy theories being peddled by various Arab Web sites and opinion mongers.

According to the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute, the Egyptian nationalist weekly Al Usbu published a piece speculating that Indian-Israeli-American nuclear testing caused the tsunami. These countries had acted "together to test a way to liquidate humanity." (Perhaps the newspaper thought they intended to "liquefy" humanity but the nuance was lost in translation.) A Friday sermon aired on Palestinian Authority TV dwelt on Thai corruption in the form of "tourist paradise" beaches where "Zionist and American investments" triggered divine wrath. An advisor to the Saudi minister of justice claimed on Saudi TV that the people who suffered did so for lying, sinning and being infidels. Another Saudi cleric felt the tsunami's timing was significant: "It happened at Christmas when fornicators from around the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion. That's when this tragedy took place striking them all." No doubt the poor Muslims of Aceh would take issue with that hypothesis.

It makes sense that the kind of self-deluding theocratic tautologies that produce suicide bombers cannot tolerate the uncertainty of an act of nature. It makes no sense, however, that we in the West tolerate the purveying of such paranoid drivel. Imagine the outcry if Western news outlets floated theories that Islamic habits had caused the tsunami. Perhaps we cannot imagine that anyone would give credence to such primitive stigmatizing. We shouldn't be so naïve. We know, at least, that the purveyors believe in it and that all too many in the Middle East subscribe to conspiracy theories. It is, quite simply, a form of propaganda warfare which we're losing because we're scarcely fighting back. During the Cold War, when the Soviets initiated slanders--remember the rumor that Americans were abducting babies in Guatemala?--we had the expertise and wisdom to counter them. Above all, we understood that it mattered.

To be sure, the climbdown in public diplomacy and sundry other means of defending America's name happened chiefly in the Clinton era; but it is much worse in the Bush era because it matters more. Why, for example, has no serious attempt been made to rebut, globally and in detail, the horrendous rumor that Israel in some way organized 9/11? We should have inundated the Muslim world with broadcasts refuting the canard, not airily from on high, but with specific data and arguments--precisely at the level of the rumors. Not to do so looks like we're afraid of something. That is how it looks from outside, whether we like it or not.

One often hears the argument that anti-Americans in the Middle East will continue to believe what they want, regardless, and that we shouldn't sink so low as to address sleazy conspiracies. Funny, one didn't hear that during the Cold War. Why are Muslims uniquely unsuited to our arguments? Should we totally abandon the forum to the mullahs? It hardly needs repeating here that beliefs, especially in guerilla conflicts, result in bullets and suicide bombs. Dangerous libels should be treated as incitements to terror acts; we should, as the saying goes, find a "return address" for them. Mullah X or Sheikh Y should find himself having to defend his aspersions in a public forum. If the Discovery Channel can confront advocates of Nostradamus with skeptical scientists, think what Karl Rove can effect in a campaign of such encounters.

Of all the diplomatic bungling in the wider Muslim world, the desultory approach to persuasion ranks as the most egregious. It took Washington almost a year from the onset of hostilities to launch a credible satellite-channel rival to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Meanwhile, all about them, Iraqis and other Arabs were inundated with appeals to their religion, and their nation and tribe, to resist the infidels. Competent propaganda, at the very least, gives the impression that one cares about what the local people think, and in its absence, the Arabs must have thought that America did not care about their welfare. As veteran Cold Warriors from Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty will tell you, we won that war through cultural propaganda because we convinced subject populations that we, more than the Soviets, had their well-being in mind.

The defense that George Bush is a bluff Texan who values deeds more than appearances just will not suffice. He did not win a second term by neglecting spin: He only neglects it abroad. There's a dire sense that Americans don't bother to persuade others anymore because we're horrified they're not like us, or because they think ill of us. Yeats said that out of the argument with ourselves comes poetry, out of the argument with others comes politics. Democracy is all about argument, persuasion and politics. If we want Iraqis to think we always intended above all to bring them democracy, then we should persuade them that we are, first and foremost, in the business of argument.

Mr. Kaylan is a writer in New York

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