Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

Conspiracy theories: An interview with Viewpoint

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Thursday, 07 November 2013 10:09by Haider Shah |

There is a wide gap between our real capacity and our lofty ideals. So it becomes necessary to fill the gap with conspiracy theories of all sorts

‘Our commentators in popular media invoke conspiracy theories to create a smokescreen in which no one is able to see the omnipresent reality. ‘It’s all because of the villainous West’ is the sum total of their discourse,’ says Dr Haider Shah.

Dr. Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. In an interview with Viewpoint, he discusses the growing popularity of conspiracy theories in Pakistan. Read on:

 

Why do you think conspiracy theories have gained widespread currency and hold sway over popular opinion in Pakistan?

Society is a social invention of humans to satisfy their socio-economic needs. In addition to our physical needs, we also have psychological needs. ‘To feel important’ is the most important human need. When you cease to feel important, you experience depression and can develop suicidal tendencies even if all physical needs stand fulfilled. A society is made up of individuals. It can also, therefore, suffer from psychological conditions. It also needs to feel important. Individuals who feel that certain people or in extreme cases everyone else is conspiring against them are said to be suffering from the disease of ‘paranoia’. This can be thought of as a perverted way of ego satisfaction. They prefer to live in their imagined world where their own failures appear as the handiwork of deep rooted conspiracies of others. They engage in a self-pitying exercise believing that they would have won laurels had the world not been actively conspiring against them. Often people with little real potential but lofty ideals about themselves develop such tendencies. There is no shortage of such individuals in our society so popularity of conspiracy theories is in fact a symptom of ‘paranoia’ at societal level. We have condemned our women, more than half of population, to the life of eternal captivity within the four walls of our houses. Most of the remaining 50 per cent waste their working hours on account of socially institutionalised rituals. The upper echelons neither work nor pay any taxes. The list of failures, embarrassments and follies is a long one. But just look at our social discourse. We are Islam’s fort. We are a nuclear power. We want to be treated at par with a neighbour that is many times our size in economy and population. There is a wide gap between our real capacity and our lofty ideals. So it becomes necessary to fill the gap with conspiracy theories of all sorts.

These so-called conspiracy theories are not popular merely in Pakistan. Almost all over the Muslim world one comes across similar cock-and-bull narratives. It seems Pakistan is not an isolated case. But contagion has plagued the entire Muslim world. Your comments

Yes, I agree with this. Except for oil what else the Muslim world can boast of. Even this oil is discovered and extracted for them by the Western oil companies. In an ordinary Muslim’s scheme of things, taught by elders, he or she is the centre of the universe. God is on his side and hence all the rest in the world are doomed. In reality he is also aware that over last 500 years his community’s contribution towards any humanity serving knowledge is almost nil. His community is just a proud consumer of the goods and services generated by knowledge created by others. This realisation can be very painful. So the Muslim community as a whole has also created an imaginary world where the Muslim nations are always innocent victims of the cunning non-Muslim world. This way the bruised ego finds some solace.

Another aspect is: these so-called theories are popularized by the media outlets, political bodies and ‘scholars’ with far-right or right-wing ideological bent [many of them can be tagged as fundamentalists]. Do you think the tendency to popularize conspiracy theories to explain away a complicated world is in fact an intellectual failure of the political Islam and conspiracy-theories-as-discourse mirror the intellectual bankruptcy of the political Islam?

Just as I mentioned earlier, you need to be making solid contribution to the knowledge based economy of modern times in order to claim your piece of the pie of importance. The Muslim world has invested very little in rationalist scientific knowledge in terms of money, time and energy over last many centuries. If you google for books on Islamic theology you will find an unending list of books written by infinite number of Muslim scholars from around the world. But if you google for genuine and original works of science you will be struggling to find any good references of Muslim names. If there are a few books their writers also were educated in Western universities. With this bleak picture, it is not surprising that our commentators in popular media invoke conspiracy theories to create a smokescreen in which no one is able to see the omnipresent reality. ‘It’s all because of the villainous West’ is the sum total of their discourse.

What have been the consequences, especially in the Pakistani context, for political culture where conspiracy theories have become a framework for a world outlook?

When Spiderman movie captured the imagination of young children there were reports in media that many kids suffered serious injuries when they imagined themselves to be Spiderman and tried to copy his moves. Our leaders also live in an imaginary world created by the conspiracy theories. Repercussions of living in an imaginary world are same for kids and adults.

What about the role of mainstream electronic and social media? Both forums, it seems, are largely dominated by conspiracy theorists. Consequently, technologies with liberating potential have become instrumental in holding mass mind in dark. Your comments

No doubt there is a demand for conspiracy theories in the developed countries as well as this craze for conspiracy theories is not monopolised by Pakistani society, in particular, and the Muslim world, in general. Even today books and documentaries based on conspiracy theories about killing of J.F. Kennedy are popular with a certain section of the American society. What differentiates this trend from ours is however the fact that the consumers of conspiracy theories form an insignificant minority in these societies while in our country interpreting current world events through conspiracy theories is a well-accepted norm. A famous (though obsolete) law in economics claims ‘Supply creates its own demand’. The dictum may have gone out of favour in classical economics but in the realm of public discourse supply of conspiracy theories through popular media outlets can have long term devastating effects. Not only popular media but increasingly social media is also being used by preachers of half-baked conspiracy theories for discrediting truth and rationalism. We have seen it in the case of Malala in the recent past. Just as a few bold rationalist voices become more audible, the extremists also become more active to destroy new discourse with the venomous stings of their conspiracy theories. It is a sad state of affairs but rationalists have to continue their important work. Silence is no longer an option now.

Dr. Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding  member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at  
hashah9@yahoo.com

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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