The myth of the Great PowersAuthor: Shokrollah Kamari Majin
The myth of the Great Powers
One of the most interesting theories in the political world is Conspiracy Theory. The theory explains claims related to events, which sees hidden hands behind the events.
Why is it interesting and in situations popular? This may be because it is somehow connected with invisible imprecise and ambiguous factors, so that the truth or falsity of the claim is not just around the corner. The relationship between the claim for hidden actors involved in an event and the reality is not easy to establish, but it used to be something that floats free in the air. Perhaps that is why it is most interesting, especially among mass people.
Question on whether a perception or a claim, which is based on rumours and is prevalent in society, is realistic or based on mere illusions, can play a decisive role in the society's political and consequently social issues.
This article aims to shed light on at least one of the angles of processes that result in to produce conspiracy theories in the Middle Eastern countries.
It is clear that the more a society is chaotic and unstable, the more illusions, unrealistic assessments, rumours, constructed narratives and speculations have the ability to grow.
One of the special characteristics of the Middle East region is that the political behaviour in situations can be as harsh and inflexible as no political thinking can feel safe. In an article in the Turkish Weekly, Eyüp Ersoy from the department of International Relations, Bilkent University, gives a verbal definition of the Middle East, where he mentions that the Middle East is a region "Where no one is without a rival, and where there are those who cannot be without a rival" (JTW, December 27, 2012). With such a presentation of the region's political relations one can better imagine, how complicated and unstable political condition may be in the region.
In another article in the "Journal of Conflict Resolution" Sørli et al. ask question about why the Middle East is "one of the most conflict-prone regions" (JCR, Vol. 49 No. 1, February 2005 141-165). While Sørli and his co-authors compare the Middle East to other regions, they find the region to be a special region "by authoritarian regimes, oil-dependent economies, Islam, and the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict" (Ibid). If these above national and regional factors are added with international factors, one can get a broader understanding of the political situation in this part of the world.
That is one of the reasons for the growth of theories among the people of the Middle East, on which basis there are always mysterious forces behind the scene of politics, who are directing the roles. Dr Matthew Gray, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies believes that the Middle East is a suitable land to grow conspiracy theories about the involvement of the West in the region (Gray, 2010).
As late as possible in the case of Boston bombing in few weeks ago, producers of conspiracy theories once again became active in order to find the person responsible for the bombings. Although the disaster happened far away from the Middle East, but the theory machine in Middle Eastern countries was launched, so that a columnist wrote in the Daily News Egypt, 21 April 2013, "in Egypt, and the Middle East at large, we love our conspiracy theories like we love our sugary tea and our suicide bombers (boom!)".
Many political events such as repression of popular uprisings, regime change, support of dictators, overthrow a government or developments of such in the Middle Eastern countries are often related to major powers, major economic cartels, freemasonry groups, strong Christian or Jewish organisations, and so on. The popular explanation is that those groups do those things in the direction of their interests and therefore they're trying to have influence on the political relationship in the region.
As we can see the roles of those hidden hands in all cases are negative. Ramsay makes it clear that "the problem with the term conspiracy theory is that it comes with a lot of negative baggage" Ramsay, 2006: 10).
Conspiracy theory tells of a form of perception related to causes of events. Those can be economic, political, social or else. The theory is used to explain situations, where a range of selected but not necessarily relevant arguments trying to prove the existence of some - often unclear - plans by any individuals or groups, who aiming some targets behind the event (Ramsay, 2006). Those individuals or groups are not always known. Daniel Pipes defines it as a theory based on any notions of that behind a given event there lies a complicated plot, set in motion from "powerful hidden forces" (Pipes, 1992: 41-56).
When there happens an important event that can be related to politics or when a political controversial issue is launched, some individuals or groups begin to look for a directly track from powerful forces, which is difficult to say who really they are.
Those individuals or groups will often find someone who can be identified as the culprit. However this "someone" as mentioned, is in a package of some sort of mystery.
Of course it's not up for discussion that in many cases interference from great powers can be discovered. It is clear that the great powers have influences in many different parts of the world. However, this is not a general law that can be confident and sufficient reason in every situation. Perhaps in many cases such a law is even misleading and is thinking with negative results.
In the most pessimistic situation there can be said that there are always some Western plots in connection with every political event in the Middle East. However, it looks completely unthinkable to claim that in planning and creating of the political opportunities, it is always the Westerners that have the main role. It is also difficult to imagine that the Westerners plan and act directly and without some intermediaries.
It can in the worst situation result in a perception that nobody has role in the social changes, but that it is always the will of the hidden hands that determine everything.
In the book "Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World" (2010) Dr Matthew Gray points to different involved factors in the forming of a conspiracy theory in the Arab world (Gray, 2010).
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald Gray says that "All sorts of people, from presidents and public figures all the way down to taxi drivers use conspiracy theories as political language". (The Sydney Morning Herald June 17, 2011).
The art "to seize opportunities" in a political game is something else than "conspiracy". Opportunism is a much familiar way in political operations. According to the definition from "The Free Dictionary" the concept means "the conscious policy and practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances, with little regard for principles". That is one of the usual features in politics that a state conducts a targeted assessment of a concrete situation in the light of existing realities, and attempts for the maximum use of the "situation".
On the basis of Realist Theory, which is a dominated theory in the field of International Relations the security of states is one of the fundamental values (Morgenthau, 1960). From a "realist" perspective "states" have to make efforts for their safety. There are no principles or moral injunction / prohibition that would prevent the world's states from acting in an unethical or immoral way.
"National interest" in a "realist" sense derives from that rule that a state has to be strong to promote its future plans and ambitions. "National interest" may contain all kinds - economic, military, and cultural of a nation's capabilities and competencies.
One of the most prominent researchers in the field of realist thinking in IR in the 20th century is Hans Morgenthau, who stressed the importance of "national interest" and its role in the relations between nations.
According to Morgenthau foreign policy goals should be defined on the basis of national interest, and "national interest" should be defined in terms of "power" (Morgenthau, 1978: 5). That is why "National interest" and "power" are two key concepts for Morgenthau.
Essentially, because of the specific social and cultural structure of the Middle East, the religion of Islam has a great influence on decision-making processes in various arenas of society. This results in a significant power to Islamic leaders in the Middle Eastern countries. It is actually that group of actors, who are focused on here. It is based on including the perception that religious organizations have the best facilities in constant contact with people.
Therefore, the acceptability of the society's dominant order and the legitimacy of the ruling powers in the Middle Eastern countries are in a high degree dependent on those Islamic forces and establishments.
More than other institutions the Islamic establishments are able to manoeuvre in order to show the ruling powers their strength and stabilization of theirs power.
Even every state in order to advance its political targets uses the conspiracy theory. The state in situations can come to need to identify its allies and enemies in order to maintenance of its security and to preserve its military, political and economic resources. However, every state, which possesses the coercive and economic means, has also need a third arm, whose task is creating a form of legitimacy for the state.
In the Middle Eastern countries the induction of the impression of, which foreign states and which internal circles are in the direction of the country's national interest or act contrary to the interests, is also among the abilities that the religious circles can handle.
Due to the link between Islamic communities and organisations on the one hand and the people's beliefs on the other hand, those organisations possesses of the best chances to constructing one or more enemies for to tell people that behind each problem there lies a hidden conspiracy.
The religious scholars, who particularly have special religious authorizations (fatwa), have the ability, directly or indirectly, to induce people to believe that behind occurrence of a given set of political events, some hidden hands are at work.
However cooperation between the ruling power and religious leaders (ulama) and pastors all is depend on whether those two forms of power live in a harmonious structure or that there are cracks in their relationship.
If we assume a specific case and we review it, we may be able to get a better understanding of the background to the growth of the conspiracy theory in the Middle East.
I will focus on Iran, and on a stakeholder circle as one of the main groups among all groups, who are interested in the dissemination of rumours and perceptions based on Conspiracy Theory.
Although many have examined the role of Islamic establishments and Islamic clerics in the Middle East I mean the religious circles and their interests are the most decisive factor in the political relations in the Middle East region, as it is worth to again look at. But the question is why they try to spread conspiracy theories among the people. Why they claim that there are always one or another prepared plot by great powers behind every political event.
To answer the question the motive of this interest group can be analysed. I will focus on the Mossadegh government's fall in Iran in 1953 as one of the most controversial events in the Middle East that is happened in 60 years ago, but there are still many unanswered questions around it.
The case that can confirm the influence of conspiracy theory in the Middle East contains many different narratives about the events around the time of the nationalization of oil in Iran – the so called movement of the nationalization of oil – under Dr. Mosaddegh Premiership. Many political analysts after almost 60 years from those events still are disagree about the question of a direct or indirect involvement of the United States in 1953 coup against Mosaddegh's government in Iran.
There are several sources, among them Malcolm Byrnes, who can confirm the alleged coup, but there are also allegations, which reject that there may be a previously planned attempt to overthrow the government. Byrne says that the order from the "Secretary of State John Foster Dulles" to the CIA in order to overthrow of Mosaddeq government was issued already in March 1953 (Byrnes, 2000).
Among opponents of the theory of the coup against Mosaddeq the famous Iranian historian Ali Mirfetros can be mentioned. In his book entitled "Mohammad Mosaddeq, pathology of a failure" he claims that there has not been a coup, but that the basis for the allegation related to a coup refers to a nervous and angry history, and perhaps we have sacrificed the present and future for this destructive nervousness (Mirfetros, 2008: 20).
The intention here is either a confirmation or refutation of that there has been a coup against Mosaddeq, but the purpose is to show the influence of "Conspiracy Theory" in Middle Eastern countries, especially around major political events.
Among opponents of the theory of coup, there exists this attitude that all the conditions and factors within Iran at that historical time were gathered in direction of overthrow the Mosaddeq's government. Thus it would sooner or later lead to the government's fall. The role that the West played in that game was only a riding on the wave of events and using the circumstance, which was already existed in the framework of the internal developments in Iran.
What is a primary importance in the study of political developments in a given country is to identify the change's backgrounds and the related factors. The deeper and more accurate this recognition is, the less speculations, rumours, exaggerations and fabulous creations. Of course it is not without difficulties to be aware on and having control over the developments' processes. Therefore, in some situations, the easier way will be selected. Its price is also to falling into a trap of unfounded and false theories. Mirfetros who criticizes this trend, says:
We are a people who want big victories and successes, and yet readily obtainable. Where we suffer from our failures, we resort to the "conspiracy theory", "British plot" and "external factors" instead of looking at ourselves and to be aware of the shortcomings and own negligence (Mirfetros, 2008: 23).
That is exactly in accordance with the definition of "conspiracy theory", which Ramsay presents. He says, "Conspiracy theory" is developed based on a particular narrative form where you select a variety of arguments to prove the existence of a plot (Ramsay, 2006).
Mirfetros binds populism, "mass society" and charismatic leadership to "Conspiracy Theory". According to Mirfetros a populist movement may be an appropriate platform for the development of the view that "the external plot" is behind almost everything what is happening in the society. Those, who are pursuing a certain purpose using of conspiracy theory, they argues "that everything is the fault of, or everything is controlled by X" (Ramsay, 2006: 11).
Mirfetros believes that populist leaders develop in conditions, where the society lacks development and that they are strengthened in a pattern of cultural stagnation and political - social emptiness. Finally they present themselves as "the leader" and "father of the nation" through a combination of escalating emotions, slogans, excitements, nervousness, populism and ambitions.
He continues, "the leader" because of his nervous and anarchic nature cannot come up with concrete solutions to concrete political - social problems, so he by using the focus on the "plot" and "the stranger's plan" tries to hide his weaknesses and barriers, in other words, a populist leader is both "chaos producer" and one who "lives of chaos" (Mirfestro, 2008: 71).
Often, for two reasons one can come to a conspiracy theory. The first is that those in power need for constructing false enemies. The other is when the realities are covered for the people's vision, so that they inevitably resort to claims, which according to Birchall are ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish or irrational (Birchall, 2006).
In the Mossadegh case there are many evidences, which tell about the Westerners' (Americans and British) interferences. President Obama even in a speech in 2009 in Cairo acknowledged the involvement, when he said "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government" (Guardian, 4 June 2009). However the claim that the only cause to overthrow the Mossadegh government has been the American-British will and plotting in order to prove of another claim (everything is the fault of, or everything is controlled by Americans or British) is indemonstrable.
The religious circles were Mossadegh's greatest opponents. At that time there were mainly three groupings, who were involved in the events related to the nationalization of the oil; those were the nationalists lead by Mossadegh, the religious part, who led by Shiia clerics, mainly by Ayatollah Kashani, and the last the communists, who led by Tudeh Party.
Among those the religious groups were strong due to their links to people's faith and moreover due to a great financial support from the market (Bazar).
According to the Iranian historian, Gholamreza Nejati, in the middle of the struggle for the nationalization of oil industry and in the process of the confrontation with Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in March 1953 Ayatollah Kashani by his considerable influence among religious communities and the market (Bazar) took side of the Shah, and prevented him from travelling outside the country. Ayatollah Boroujerdi also congratulated the return of the Shah to Iran (Nejati, 1992: 225).
There are many evidences, which prove the religious circles' fear and dissatisfaction of and even enmity against Mossadegh. A time before Mossadegh's fall Ayatollah Kashani had told to another ayatollah (Behbahani) that Mossadegh's "leftist advisers were endangering national security" (Abrahamian, 1982: 276-7), because "the religious establishment, worried about communism" (Gheissari & Nasr, 2006: 53).
However the point is that the religious circles and religious leaders try to relate Mossadegh's fall only to a detailed plan by Americans-British.
Accusations against the U.S. related to "1953 coup" culminated especially after the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979. This was in order to legitimize the occupation. Here the Conspiracy Theory machine starts again. Mousavi Khoiniha in an interview with the Magasine "Tarikhirani" says "Americans came here and toppled the national government. Instead we also occupied theirs embassy.... Some say that it is contrary to international norms. Was American coup in Iran in accordance with international laws?" (tarikhirani.ir, November 28, 2012).
That was not an unknown phenomenon in the Iranian history. Every time there was need to an enemy, it was produced. It's interesting that Ramsay says generally that this unknown enemy has been existed in various forms in the 300 years, "the Jews (or Jewish bankers), the Masons, the Catholics, the Communists, the Illuminati, or the Devil" (Ramsay, 2006: 11).
Indeed Iranian religious leaders used "the embassy hostage" in order to consolidate their power and the elimination of political rivals. But before that, they should have some reasons for their act. One of the main presented reasons was that according to Houghton they were not ensured regarding the security and survival of the revolution (Houghton, 2001), and thus the hostage-taking was justified to prevent a repeat of 1953 Coup. One of the hostage-takers had told that they thought "the countdown for another coup d'état had begun"! (Kinzer, 2008: 203).
After Mossadegh's fall in 1953 Ayatollah Kashani in an interview with newspaper "Almahdi" expresses his enmity against Mossadegh. When the interviewer asks him: Do you think that Dr. Mossadegh tried to establish of a republic regime? Ayatollah Kashani answers: Yes, he tried to establish republic. Four month earlier Mossadegh wanted to send the Shah out of the country, but I wrote a letter to the Shah and demanded that he should cancel his trip, and the Shah also temporarily withdrew from thinking of travelling....
The reporter then asks Ayatollah Kashani about Mossadegh's punishment, and Ayatollah answers:
According to Islamic Shariah, the punishment of someone who betrays in his country's commands and representation in Jihad is death (Dehnavi, 1982).
The Iranian historian Dr. Reza Niazmand says also it is well known that in the August 1953 event Ayatollah Kashani was active in the bring people together from the impoverished region in Tehran in order to uprise against Mossadegh (Niazmand, ..... : 439).
In the anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran Ray Takeyh wrote an article in Washington Post, where he considered the clergy device as the most responsible for overthrow of Mossadegh government. He believes that "the Islamic Republic should not be able to whitewash the clerics' culpability" (Washington Post, 18 August 2010). After he gives a short review of the then historical events he expresses that the clergy has always been opposed to modern and secular politicians like Mosssadegh (Ibid). While Takeyh does not deny America's role in the overthrow of Mossadegh government he believes that "responsibility for the suffocation of the Iranian peoples' democratic aspirations in the summer of 1953 lies primarily with those who went on to squash another democratic movement in the summer of 2009 - the mullahs" (Ibid).
However the stately Fars News Agency - in the attempt to legitimize the Islamic regime's inflexible attitude in its relations to the United States uses the conspiracy theory again and claims that distrust is one of the main characteristics in the relationship between Iran and the United States. Fars News Agency points to America's 1953 coup against Mossadegh as the cause of this distrust (Fars News Agency, 24 December 2012).
Finally Ahmadinejad's claim can be considered as one link in a chain of the theory, on whose basis "everything is the fault of, or everything is controlled by, X" (Ramsay, 2006: 11). In the anniversary of the 9/11 event Ahmadinejad said: "The September 11 [attacks] were actually a planned game to provoke the human community's sentiments and find an excuse for launching attack on Muslim regions and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to the massacre of one million innocent people" (ABC News, September 11, 2012).
- ABC News, September 11, 2012: Ahmadinejads speech on 10-Year Anniversary of 9/11 event.
- Abrahamian, Ervand, 1982. Iran Between Two Revolutions, Princeton University Press, 1982
- Birchall, Clare, 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip. Oxford: Berg.
- Dehnavi, Mohammad. 1982. A Series of Writings, Speeches and Messages of Ayatollah Kashani gathered by Mohammad Dehnavi, Publications "Chap Pakhsh", 1982.
- Gheissari, Ali & Nasr Sayyed Vali Reza, 2006. Democracy in Iran: history and the quest for liberty, Oxford University Press, 2006
- Gray, M 2010, Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World: Sources and Politics, Routledge, London UK.
- Kinzer, Stephen,2008. All the Shah's Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle EastTerror, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008), 203.
- Houghton, David, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
- Malcolm, Byrne, ed. 2 (November 2000), The Secret CIA History of the Coup, 1953, George Washington University, quoting National security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 28.
- Mirfetros, Ali, 2008, Mohammad Mosaddeq, Pathology of a Failure, Farhang, Montréal.
- Nejati, Gholamreza, 1992. Twenty-five-year Political History of Iran, Institute for Cultural Service "Resa", 1992.
- Niazman, Reza, 2004. Shia in the Iranian History, Hekayat-e Qalam-e Novin Publishing
- Pipes, Daniel, 1992. Dealing with Middle Eastern Conspiracy Theories. Orbis 36: 41–56.
- Ramsay, Robin, 2006. Conspiracy Theories. Pocket Essentials.
- The Guardian (UK). 4 June 2009.
- The Sydney Morning Herald, June 17, 2011
- Washington Post, 18 August 2010
About the Author
With a background as Cand.scient.soc. from Aalborg University, Denmark, Shokrollah Kamari Majin works currently as a social worker in Helsingor, Denmark. In addition, he trained Middle East Studies at the Master's degree at the University of Odense, Denmark. He is interested in studies dealing with the relationship between power and religion with special focus on the Middle East as the regional interest area. Additionally, he works with IR theories. Currently, he is Ph.D. student at the Institute of International Relations, Warsaw University, Poland.