U.S. Conspiracy Theories Abound in Arab World

Conspiracy theories about the United States and its intentions continue to circulate throughout the Arab world. For example, some Arabs don't believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9-11 attacks. Others believe the United States is preparing to circulate an "American version" of the Qu'ran, the Islamic holy book. Eric Weiner examines why and how these conspiracy theories thrive, and what the U.S. government is doing to counter them.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

It's been nearly four years since the attacks of September 11th. Most of us in this country are convinced that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization carried out those attacks, but that is not necessarily the case in the Middle East. There, conspiracy theories abound, and not only about the September 11th attacks. NPR's Eric Weiner recently traveled to several Arab countries. He has this report.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

These days, Arabs get their news from many sources: newspapers, satellite TV, the Internet. But none of these technologies can compete with the gossip traded at any kawa, the Middle Eastern version of a local pub, only without the alcohol.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: This one in Cairo is typical. Waiters ferry trays full of potent Turkish coffee, while men--and only men--smoke shishas or water pipes. No one here is in a hurry to--well, to do much of anything, so the conversation doesn't exactly flow, it meanders: from sports to politics to the war in Iraq and, inevitably, to the attacks of September 11th. Al-Teer Risack(ph), an accountant, says he has not yet concluded who was responsible.

Mr. AL-TEER RISACK (Accountant): (Through Translator) The investigation into who committed those crimes has not been very transparent, so we don't know who really committed these crimes. The apparent criminals are a bunch of Arabs--19 Arabs. Yes, we realize that, but who's behind them we don't know. It could be the Israelis. It could be bin Laden. I don't know. I have not seen sufficient investigative reporting.

WEINER: Neither the 9-11 Commission's report nor Osama bin Laden own videotaped claim that he was responsible for the attacks seem to have swayed this man. The conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11th attacks have proven remarkably persistent. Hafiz al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief for the Al-Jazeera satellite news network, says these theories are a form of denial.

Mr. HAFIZ AL-MIRAZI (Al-Jazeera): People were so upset about 9/11. They found it so criminal that they said, `It can not be us.' When you don't like something, you don't say, `I did it.' You always say, `It cannot be me. It must be the enemy.'

WEINER: It's not just the 9/11 attacks that have spawned conspiracy theories. Here are some other theories currently circulating in the Middle East. Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi does not exist; he is an American invention. The US government is preparing to distribute an American version of the Koran that will consist of a mix of Christian and Muslim beliefs. Last year's Asian tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people, was caused by a US underground nuclear test. Nakhle al-Haj, news director of the al-Arabiya TV network, says Arabs have good reason to mistrust the official version of events. For years, he says, the official version was a pack of lies peddled by their governments via state-run media.

Mr. NAKHLE AL-HAJ (Al-Arabiya): When I was a kid, everything--if anything bad happened, we heard that it is Israel behind it, or it is the imperialism behind it.

WEINER: The US State Department is trying to do something about the proliferation of conspiracy theories. It runs a Web site that presents the most popular theories and then points out in great detail why they are wrong, listing, for instance, the names of all 76 Jews who died in the World Trade Center attacks in an attempt to counter the belief, widely held in the Arab world, that no Jews were killed since they were all warned ahead of time. The State Department declined to speak about its efforts to set the record straight in the Arab world, but John Alterman, a former State Department official, says its not easy to compete with the appeal of a good conspiracy theory.

Mr. JOHN ALTERMAN (Former State Department Official): It's easier to accept a simple conspiracy theory than a complex, but more true, explanation. And Jacob Burckhardt, the Swiss historian, said, `The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.' And that explains so much of the appeal of conspiracy theories in the Middle East.

WEINER: The Middle East, of course, has no monopoly on conspiracy theories. They flourish in Europe and Asia and in this country, as well. Again, al-Jazeera's Hafiz al-Mirazi.

Mr. AL-MIRAZI: With all the transparency in the American culture, why until now people are still asking, `Who killed the JFK?' Well, if you have lingering questions like that in an open society like the US, how about closed societies where you can't even get anything but the government's version of anything?

WEINER: Eric Weiner, NPR News.

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