Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini understood the astonishing power that conspiracy theories have over the minds of Muslims. After Islamic fundamentalists seized and occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, Khomeini declared that America and its “corrupt colony, Israel,” were really pulling the strings behind the takeover of the mosque. There followed an upsurge of violent anti-Americanism in Libya, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan; in Islamabad a mob burned down the U.S. embassy.1
The destructive influence of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, though, is graver than the concrete damage caused by rampaging mobs. Suffusing the cultural atmosphere of the Arab–Islamic world, such theories project the fiction that Muslims, their values, and their culture are beleaguered. By doing so, these theories both express and foment hostility toward the supposed enemies of Islam: America, Israel, and the West in general. Conspiracy theories instill and sustain in the public mind rationalizations for waging war in defense of Islam and for rejecting the values of the West (ideals such as political and economic freedom thus face an arduous struggle to take root in the Middle East).
Perhaps the most notorious and prevalent anti-Muslim conspiracy theory is The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Originating in Russia in the early 1900s, this tract purports to reveal the nefarious secret plans of a Jewish cabal to undermine the health, family life, and morality of non-Jews. These elders allegedly seek a monopoly on international finance and thereby to achieve world domination. The Protocols was exposed as a fiction in the West in the early 1920s—at roughly the time that Arabic translations of it began appearing in the Middle East. That it has long been discredited in the West has done nothing to diminish the appeal of The Protocols to Muslims.2
Instead, the book has become a fixture of the culture’s intellectual life. It has been reissued umpteen times in Arabic, and there have been more translations and editions of it in Arabic than in any other language. Gamal Abdel Nasser, while he was president of Egypt, gave away copies to foreign journalists; Saudi Arabia’s government likewise distributed copies to visitors and at Saudi Arabian embassies; and Khomeini’s regime brought the book to prominence in Iran. The charter of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group, explicitly refers to The Protocols and recycles its mythic claims. The book has been included in the curriculum of schools in Jordan, and for a period in the 1970s it became a nonfiction best seller in Lebanon.3 Major television adaptations of it have appeared in Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan (a recent Iranian television program posturing as a documentary claimed to prove how, in accordance with The Protocols, Jews control Hollywood and use movies to advance a pro-Zionist agenda).4
And the fabrication of new conspiracy theories, conveying the same general theme expressed in The Protocols, continues apace: The genocide in Sudan; the bombings on the London underground; and the attacks of September 11, 2001, were supposedly orchestrated by America (or Israel or the Elders of Zion) to defame, undermine, and injure Muslims.
While political and intellectual leaders in the Arab–Islamic world comprehend the power of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, in the West this malignant phenomenon remains little understood. Why do patently false stories, harping on supposedly omnipresent threats, proliferate among Muslims? The answer reveals a profound—and ominous—insight into the Arab–Islamic mind. . . .