- Inside jobs and Israeli stooges: Why is the Muslim world in thrall to conspiracy theories?
- DECLASSIFIED: How the U.S. let Israel go nuclear
- If you can’t beat them, charge them. #MansuhAktaHasutan
Posted: 06 Sep 2014 04:12 AM PDT
Did you know that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, was trained by Mossad and the CIA? Were you aware that his real name isn’t Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai but Simon Elliot? Or that he’s a Jewish actor who was recruited by the Israelis to play the part of the world’s most wanted terrorist?
If the messages in my email in-box and my Twitter timeline and on my Facebook page are anything to go by, plenty of Muslims are not only willing to believe this nonsensical drivel but are super-keen to share it with their friends. The bizarre claim that NSA documents released by Edward Snowden “prove” the US and Israel are behind al-Baghdadi’s actions has gone viral.
There’s only one problem. “It’s utter BS,” Glenn Greenwald, the investigative journalist who helped break the NSA story, told me. “Snowden never said anything like that and no [NSA] documents suggest it.” Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner, has called the story a hoax.
But millions of Muslims across the globe have a soft spot for such hoaxes. Conspiracy theories are rife in both Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities here in the west. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” unleashed a vast array of hoaxers, hucksters and fantasists from Birmingham to Beirut.
On a visit to Iraq in 2002, I met a senior Islamic cleric who told me that Jews, not Arabs, had been responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He loudly repeated the Middle East’s most popular and pernicious 9/11 conspiracy theory: that 4,000 Jews didn’t turn up for work on 11 September 2001 because they had been forewarned about the attacks.
There is, of course, no evidence for this outlandish and offensive claim. The truth is that more than 200 Jews, including several Israeli citizens, were killed in the attacks on the twin towers. I guess they must have missed the memo from Mossad.
Yet the denialism persists. A Pew poll in 2011, a decade after 9/11, found that a majority of respondents in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon refused to believe that the attacks were carried out by Arab members of al-Qaeda. “There is no Muslim public in which even 30 per cent accept that Arabs conducted the attacks,” the Pew researchers noted.
This blindness isn’t peculiar to the Arab world or the Middle East. Consider Pakistan, home to many of the world’s weirdest and wackiest conspiracy theories. Some Pakistanis say the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is a CIA agent. Others think that the heavy floods of 2010, which killed 2,000 Pakistanis, were caused by secret US military technology. And two out of three don’t believe Osama Bin Laden was killed by US navy Seals on Pakistani soil on 2 May 2011.
Consider also Nigeria, where there was a polio outbreak in 2003 after local people boycotted the vaccine, claiming it was a western plot to infect Muslims with HIV. Then there is Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, where leading politicians and journalists blamed the 2002 Bali bombings on US agents.
Why are so many of my fellow Muslims so gullible and so quick to believe bonkers conspiracy theories? How have the pedlars of paranoia amassed such influence within Muslim communities?
First, we should be fair: it’s worth noting that Muslim-majority nations have been on the receiving end of various actual conspiracies. France and Britain did secretly conspire to carve up the Middle East between them with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. They also conspired to attack Egypt, with Israel’s help, and thereby provoked the Suez crisis of 1956. Oh, and it turned out there weren’t any WMDs in Iraq in 2003 despite what the dossiers claimed.
I once asked the Pakistani politician Imran Khan why his fellow citizens were so keen on conspiracy theories. “They’re lied to all the time by their leaders,” he replied. “If a society is used to listening to lies all the time.. everything becomes a conspiracy.”
The “We’ve been lied to” argument goes only so far. Scepticism may be evidence of a healthy and independent mindset; but conspiracism is a virus that feeds off insecurity and bitterness. As the former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani has admitted, “the contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories” is a convenient way of “explaining the powerlessness of a community that was at one time the world’s economic, scientific, political and military leader”.
Nor is this about ignorance or illiteracy. Those who promulgate a paranoid, conspiratorial world-view within Muslim communities include the highly educated and highly qualified, the rulers as well as the ruled. A recent conspiracy theory blaming the rise of Islamic State on the US government, based on fabricated quotes from Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, was publicly endorsed by Lebanon’s foreign minister and Egypt’s culture minister.
Where will it end? When will credulous Muslims stop leaning on the conspiracy crutch? We blame sinister outside powers for all our problems – extremism, despotism, corruption and the rest – and paint ourselves as helpless victims rather than independent agents. After all, why take responsibility for our actions when it’s far easier to point the finger at the CIA/Mossad/the Jews/the Hindus/fill-in-your-villain-of-choice?
As the Egyptian intellectual Abd al-Munim Said once observed, “The biggest problem with conspiracy theories is that they keep us not only from the truth, but also from confronting our faults and problems.” They also make us look like loons. Can we give it a rest, please?
Posted: 06 Sep 2014 12:55 AM PDT
Documents reveal contacts between Washington and Jerusalem in late 1960s, when some Americans believed the nuclear option would not deter Arab leaders but would trigger an atom bomb race.
The Obama administration this week declassified papers, after 45 years of top-secret status, documenting contacts between Jerusalem and Washington over American agreement to the existence of an Israeli nuclear option. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), which is in charge of approving declassification, had for decades consistently refused to declassify these secrets of the Israeli nuclear program.
The documents outline how the American administration worked ahead of the meeting between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir at the White House in September 1969, as officials came to terms with a three-part Israeli refusal – to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty; to agree to American inspection of the Dimona nuclear facility; and to condition delivery of fighter jets on Israel's agreement to give up nuclear weaponry in exchange for strategic ground-to-ground Jericho missiles "capable of reaching the Arab capitals" although "not all the Arab capitals."
The officials – cabinet secretaries and senior advisers who wrote the documents – withdrew step after step from an ambitious plan to block Israeli nuclearization, until they finally acceded, in internal correspondence – the content of the conversation between Nixon and Meir is still classified – to recognition of Israel as a threshold nuclear state.
In fact, according to the American documents, the Nixon administration defined a double threshold for Israel's move from a "technical option" to a "possessor" of nuclear weapons.
The first threshold was the possession of "the components of nuclear weapons that will explode," and making them a part of the Israel Defense Forces operational inventory.
The second threshold was public confirmation of suspicions internationally, and in Arab countries in particular, of the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel, by means of testing and "making public the fact of the possession of nuclear weapons."
Officials under Nixon proposed to him, on the eve of his conversation with Meir, to show restraint with regard to the Israeli nuclear program, and to abandon efforts to get Israel to cease acquiring 500-kilometer-range missiles with one-ton warheads developed in the Marcel Dassault factory in France, if it could reach an agreement with Israel on these points.
Origins of nuclear ambiguity
Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity – which for the sake of deterrence does not categorically deny some nuclear ability but insists on using the term "option" – appears, according to the newly released documents, as an outcome of the Nixon-Meir understandings, no less than as an original Israeli maneuver.
The decision to release the documents was made in March, but was mentioned alongside the declassification of other materials less than a week ago in ISCAP, which is headed by a representative of the president and whose members are officials in the Department of State, Department of Defense and Department of Justice, as well as the intelligence administration and the National Archive, where the documents are stored.
The declassified material deals only with events in 1968 and 1969, the end of the terms of President Lyndon Johnson and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and the beginning of the Nixon-Meir era. However, it contains many contemporary lessons. Among these are the decisive nature of personal relations between a president like Obama and a prime minister like Benjamin Netanyahu; the relationship between the diplomatic process of "land for peace," American guarantees of Israeli security in peace time, supplies of weapons to Israel and Israel's nuclear status; and the ability of a country like Iran to move ahead gradually toward nuclear weapons and remain on the threshold of military nuclear weapons.
In the material declassified this week, one document was written by senior officials in the Nixon administration in a working group led by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, exploring the nature of the Israeli nuclear weapons program known as "NSSM 40." The existence of the document and its heading were known, but the content had so far been kept secret.
The document was circulated to a select group, including Secretary of State William P. Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and CIA director Richard Helms, and with the knowledge of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Earle Wheeler. In it, Nixon directed Kissinger to put together a panel of experts, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco.
The experts were asked to submit their intelligence evaluations as to the extent of Israel's progress toward nuclear weapons and to present policy alternatives toward Israel under these circumstances, considering that the administration was bound to the pledge of the Johnson administration to provide Israel with 50 Phantom jets, the diplomatic process underway through Rogers, and the aspiration to achieve, within the year, global nonproliferation – all while, simultaneously, Israel was facing off against Egypt on the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition.
The most fascinating parts of the 107 pages discuss internal disagreements in the American administration over how to approach Israel – pressure or persuasion, as Sisco's assistant, Rodger Davies, put it in the draft of the Department of State document. Davies also formulated a scenario of dialogue and confrontation with Israel's ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, the IDF chief of staff during the Six-Day War, who continued to sign his name using his military rank of Lieutenant General.
The documents are an intriguing illustration of organizational politics. Unexpectedly, the Department of State's approach was softer. It opposed threats and sanctions because of the fear of obstructing Rogers' diplomatic moves if Israel hardened its line. "If we choose to use the maximum option on the nuclear issue, we may not have the necessary leverage left for helping along the peace negotiations," Davies wrote.
The two branches of the Pentagon – the civilian branch headed by Laird, his deputy David Packard (a partner in the computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard, who objected to a previous sale of a super-computer manufactured by Control Data to Israel, lest it be used for the nuclear program) and their policy advisers; and the military branch headed by Gen. Wheeler – were more belligerent. Laird fully accepted the recommendation of the deputy secretary of defense in the outgoing Johnson administration, Paul Warnke, to use supplying the Phantoms to leverage far-reaching concessions from Israel on the nuclear issue.
Packard's opposite number in the Department of State – Rogers' deputy, Elliot Richardson – was Packard's ideological ally in reservations regarding Israel. However, Sisco's appointment, rather than an official from the strategic section of the Department of State, which agreed with the Pentagon, steered the recommendations of the officials toward a softer stance on Israel.
There was also an internal debate in the American administration over the extent of Israel's progress toward a nuclear weapon. The Department of State, relying on the CIA, strongly doubted the evidence and described it as circumstantial in light of the inability to collect intelligence, including during the annual visits to the Dimona facility. As to conclusive evidence that Israel had manufactured a nuclear weapon, Davies wrote, "This final step is one we believe the Labor Alignment in Israel would like to avoid. The fierce determination to safeguard the Jewish people, however, makes it probable that Israel would desire to maintain the ultimate weapon at hand should its security again be seriously threatened."
The Department of Defense, based on its intelligence agency, was more decisive in its evaluation that Israel had already attained nuclear weapons, or would do so in a matter of months.
Rabin, with his military aura and experience in previous talks on arms supplies (Skyhawks and later Phantoms) with the Johnson administration, was the key man on the Israeli side in these discussions, according to the Americans. This, even though the decisions were made in Jerusalem by Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Foreign Minister Abba Eban and their colleagues, who were not always happy with Rabin's tendency to express his "private" stances first and only then obtain approval from Jerusalem.
The Johnson and Nixon administrations concluded that, in talks with Rabin, it had been stated in a manner both "explicit and implicit" that "Israel wants nuclear weapons, for two reasons: First, to deter the Arabs from striking Israel; and second, if deterrence fails and Israel were about to be overrun, to destroy the Arabs in a nuclear Armageddon."
The contradiction in this stance, according to the Americans, was that Israel "would need a nuclear force that is publicly known and, by and large, invulnerable, i.e., having a second-strike capability. Israel is now building such a force – the hardened silos of the Jericho missiles."
However, "it is not really possible to deter Arab leaders – and certainly not the fedayeen – when they themselves represent basically irrational forces. The theory of nuclear deterrence that applies between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – a theory that requires a reasoned response to provocation, which in turn is made possible by essentially stable societies and governments – is far less applicable in the Near East."
Four years before the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and the general scorn for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the Nixon administration wrote that Israel "would never be able to rule out the possibility that some irrational Arab leader would be willing to sustain great losses if he believed he could inflict decisive damage on Israel."
Sisco and his advisers worried that a threat to cut off arms supplies "could build military and psychological pressures within Israel to move rapidly to the very sophisticated weaponry we are trying to avoid."
According to the documents, the Nixon administration believed that Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons would spur the Arab countries to acquire their own such weapons within 10 years, through private contracts with scientists and engineers in Europe. Moreover, "deeply rooted in the Arab psyche is the concept that a settlement will be possible only when there is some parity in strength with Israel. A 'kamikaze' strike at the Dimona facilities cannot be ruled out," the document states.
The Nixon advisers concluded that, all things considered, "we cannot force the Israelis to destroy design data and components, much less the technical knowledge in people's minds, nor the existing talent for rapid improvisation." Thus, Davies wrote in July, two months before the Nixon-Meir meeting, the lesser evil would be to agree for Israel to "retain its 'technical option'" to produce nuclear weapons.
"If the Israelis show a disposition to meet us on the nuclear issue but are adamant on the Jericho missiles, we can drop back to a position of insisting on non-deployment of missiles and an undertaking by the Israelis to keep any further production secret," Davies added.
The strategic consideration, mixed with political considerations, was persuasive. The draft of Meir's unconditional surrender – formulated in the Pentagon without her knowledge in her first month in office – was shelved, and the ambiguity option was born and lived in secret documents until the Obama administration made them public, for reasons (or unintentionally) of their own.
Posted: 06 Sep 2014 12:43 AM PDT
An archaic law that the prime minister promised to repeal makes an ugly comeback
IS NAJIB RAZAK, Malaysia's prime minister, a reformer? Those who say that he is can point to the economic liberalisation of his first term, from 2009 to 2013, and to his repeal of the dreaded Internal Security Act, which allowed indefinite detention without trial. However, over the past few weeks, those more sceptical of his reformist tendencies have been handed some good evidence of their own.
Since August 26th three opposition parliamentarians have been charged with sedition for making statements critical of the government. Most notable of them is N. Surendran, an MP who is also a lawyer defending Malaysia's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, against charges of sodomy. Mr Surendran was charged over a press release he issued last April that called an appellate-court judgment against Mr Anwar "flawed, defensive and insupportable", and for an online video in which he said that the sodomy charges against Mr Anwar were "an attempt to jail the opposition leader of Malaysia" for which "we hold Najib Tun Razak [Malaysia's prime minister] personally responsible."
In addition, Rafizi Ramli, a senior opposition politician, was investigated for sedition but charged with insult and provocation in a manner likely to disturb the peace for alleging that Mr Najib's party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), sowed religious discord for political gain. On August 25th Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, another politician, was charged with defaming Mr Najib in a speech two years earlier. And on September 2nd the dragnet widened: Azmi Sharom, a law professor, was charged with sedition for remarks made about a governance crisis five years ago in the state of Perak. None of these statements is seditious, in the usual sense, in that none of them advocated the government's overthrow.
Yet Malaysia's sedition law is almost comically broad. It defines seditious statements as any that "excite[s] disaffection…against any Government" or "against the administration of justice in Malaysia" or "promote[s] feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes of the population in Malaysia". It is also selectively enforced. Mr Ramli's remarks triggered a sedition investigation, whereas those made by UMNO's vice-president reportedly calling ethnic-Chinese Malaysians "ungrateful" and accusing non-Malays of "insulting Islam and the Malays under the pretence of democracy" did not.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, a human-rights advocate and former chairwoman of Bersih, a coalition of groups advocating free and fair elections, accuses the government of using the Sedition Act to "assert power over the people and to create a climate of fear. And it's working." Those charged could eventually prevail in court, but they face long trials and possibly multiple appeals. Mr Surendran believes the charges against him were intended to make it more difficult for him to defend Mr Anwar. He says he has been "bogged down" while preparing for trial, and says the charges are "part of a wave of repression".
In 2012 Mr Najib promised to repeal the Sedition Act. He intends to replace it late next year with legislation that, in the vague words of a government spokesman, "promotes national harmony whilst protecting Malaysian citizens from racial or religious hatred." Fears of racial discord run deep in multicultural Malaysia, as they do in Singapore. Hundreds of Chinese and Malays died during communal violence in 1969. But Ms Sreenevasan believes the government "plays to those fears…the only way they can hold onto power is by dividing people."
Some believe that Mr Najib's foot-dragging on repeal, as well as the sedition charges, are a response to pressure from the right wing of his own party—particularly from Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who publicly withdrew his support for Mr Najib on August 18th, one day before the first sedition charge was filed against Mr Surendran. But, in pandering to the right, Mr Najib risks tarnishing his own reformist image. It is hard to be the face of progress and moderation while leading a government that seeks to jail its critics.
Correction: In the original version of this article we mistakenly identified Ambiga Sreenevasan as the chairwoman of Bersih. She no longer holds this post, having been replaced in November 2013 by Maria Chin Abdullah. Our apologies to both.
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