Because conspiracy theories emanating from the Muslim world are nothing new—a decade ago, Israel was accused of perpetrating the strikes of 9/11, today it is accused of perpetrating the bombings of a Coptic church—they tend to be dismissed in the West.
A close examination of these theories, however, reveals pathological trends that need to be acknowledged—especially by Western leaders who stubbornly interact with the Muslim world under the assumption that all Muslims "think just like us."
Consider, for starters, those conspiracy theories dealing with subversive animals:
•"Iranians arrest fourteen squirrels for spying": According to Iranian state-sponsored news agency IRNA, "Intelligence operatives have arrested 14 squirrels within Iran's borders. The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services." (Iran has also arrested "spying pigeons" accused of working for Israel.)
•Israel unleashes rats and pigs against Jerusalem Arabs: According to the Palestinian Authority's official news agency, Wafa, Israel is "using wild pigs to drive Palestinians out of their homes" and "Rats have become an Israeli weapon to displace and expel Arab residents of the occupied Old City of Jerusalem."
•"Israel responsible for fatal shark attack and lethal jellyfish in Red Sea": According to South Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel, "Mossad throwing the deadly shark (in the sea) to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question, but it needs time to confirm."
•Saudi Arabia "arrests" a vulture as part of a "Zionist plot": According to a BBC report, the vulture appears to have been tagged by Tel Aviv University researchers studying migration patterns; even so, "the bird could meet a horrible punishment in the notoriously severe Saudi justice system."
"The most common method to wear down the brothers [Muslim inmates] was witchcraft…. There were, of course, Jews among the [staff of] the Guantanamo Base, and they would set traps for the guys…. I remembered an incident with a guy who sat next to me in the morning. When they brought the milk, he began to urinate into the milk. I said to him: "Why are you urinating in the milk?" That's when we knew that he was under a spell. After he had recovered a little, after we read Koranic verses to him, he said to me: "The birds on the barbed wire would talk to me, and tell me to urinate in the milk"…. Once, when I was sleeping—on the floor, not on a bed—I suddenly felt that a cat was trying to penetrate me. It tried to penetrate me again and again. I recited the kursi verse again and again [Koran 2:255] until the cat left."
Considering that the Koran depicts talking ants and birds, vouches for the power of sorcery, and has an entire chapter dedicated to the Jinn (Sura 72); that Hamas arrested 150 "witches" in Gaza last year; that Islam's prophet Muhammad decreed that black dogs must die, "for they are devils"; that there is a fatwa to kill Mickey Mouse (a cartoon character), since rodents are "corrupters, steered by Satan";—considering all this, it should come as no surprise that animals are being portrayed as infidel operatives.
Rather, the surprise lies in who is making and disseminating these stories. After all, conspiracy theories are not the sole domain of the Muslim world; the West has its share of crackpot theories. Yet, they are not in the mainstream. Conversely, far from coming from a marginalized periphery, all of the aforementioned animal accusations were either made or disseminated by "authoritative" sources in the Muslim world: Spying squirrels, Iranian state-sponsored news; rampaging rats and pigs, Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority media; tourism-destroying shark, an Egyptian official; spying vulture awaiting Sharia justice, Saudi media.
Consider the most recent example of Gitmo witchery. The problem is not that one Walid Muhammad Hajj believes this, but that Al Jazeera—by far, the highest rated news network in the Arab world—aired it on prime time. That the suit-and-tie host was very sympathetic, never once casting doubt on Hajj's narrative, speaks volumes. (Incidentally, this Gitmo story was aired on the same show that earlier provided Muhammad al-Awwa a platform to incite Egypt's Muslims against its Christian minority—thereby contributing to the latest slaughter of Copts in Egypt on New Year's Eve.)
The point here is simple: if the media—especially news and current affairs programs—reflect the concerns of their society, imagine if a prime-time CNN program hosted someone who earnestly accused people of witchcraft, talking birds, and rapist cats—all to a sincerely concerned host. What would that suggest about the American mindset?
What does it suggest about the Muslim mindset?
*) Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum, author of The Al Qaeda Reader, and guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College.