Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In 2005, an independent filmmaker, Dylan Avery, made a documentary called Loose Change. The film explores the many conspiracy theories which began to emerge after the 9/11 attacks in New York. 

The documentary does not discuss the theories as much as it actually promulgates them in a rather dramatic manner. The film claims that it has enough evidence to prove the conspiratorial notion that the 9/11 attacks were an ‘inside job,’ i.e., they were organised by the US government.

In 2006, Avery and the film’s producers released a second edition of the film, claiming that this one included some new evidence. But, actually, this one left out certain claims made in the first edition of the film after they were debunked.

Complex socio-political changes and the internet explosion have allowed conspiracy theories once relegated to the ‘lunatic fringe’ to move into the mainstream

A year later in 2007, a third version of the documentary emerged called Loose Change: Final Cut. This edition almost entirely edited out the many speculative claims of the previous editions. This left the film looking more like a compilation of reports on the attacks because, by then, Loose Change had been systematically debunked through a series of articles in various newspapers in the US and the UK.

Ironically, the American business tycoon, Mark Cuban, who had bought the rights to distribute the last edition of the film — which, unlike the first two editions, was not released online for free — was quoted as saying that he entirely disagreed with the contents of the film. One of the film’s producers, Mathew Brown, echoed the sentiment but added that he had financed the film because he believed in freedom of speech.

The first edition was a sloppy and amateur attempt to cynically draw traction from online fans of conspiracy theories. However, it became a huge online hit, encouraging the makers of the film to turn it into a lucrative franchise of sorts. 

The first edition cost just 2,000 dollars, the second 6,000 dollars, and the third 200,000 dollars, after the rights of the film were sold to a major DVD distribution company. Translated versions of the film were also screened on TV channels in various countries, including Pakistan.

Geo TV ran it with an Urdu commentary, even though, by then, the film had been significantly discredited. Influenced by the successful manner in which it had managed to draw a large audience, another local TV channel, Indus TV, began to run a series of translated documentaries funded by the wealthy Turkish ‘Islamic creationist’ and cult figure Harun Yahya. 

These films explained Darwinism, sec­ularism, democracy, ‘Western modernity,’ etc., as the core reasons behind the misery in the Muslim world and on Earth in general.

In 2009, ARY News jumped on the bandwagon by adapting another Yahya-funded documentary End of Time. Commentary in the Urdu version was provided by a talk-show host, who faithfully replicated the film’s sombre tone, pointing out the ‘signs’ foretold by the holy scriptures of the coming apocalypse.

As I mentioned in a previous column (Dawn, May 5, 2019) two in-depth studies, conducted in 2018 and published in the Journal of Individual Differences, identified ‘schizotypy’ as a prominent reason behind the growth in the acceptance of fantastical claims and conspiracy theories in recent years. 

People with schizotypy have an elevated need to feel unique, but at the same time take refuge in a community of like-minded individuals. Such an individual or community are more likely to judge nonsensical statements as profound. 

They often believe in things for which there is no empirical evidence. The higher this schizotypy is in a person, the more likely he or she is to believe in conspiracy theories.

There is also the fact that the complex political, economic, climatic and demographic shifts and changes occurring in the post-9/11 world, and the mushrooming of social media sites, have all contributed in making fantastical explanations — that were once relegated to the ‘lunatic fringe’ — migrate to the mainstream. 

Confusion and polarisation in this context allaows people to latch on to theoretical concoctions connecting disparate dots to complete an (often diabolic) explanatory whole.

Nothing new about this, as such. In 1902 a tome appeared in Russia titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The book reports how a group of powerful Jews got together to plan a sinister takeover of the world’s economic, political and media institutions. The book is also a hotchpotch of segments plagiarised from certain 19th-century anti-Semitic literature. 

Russian scholar and professor Cesare G. De Michelis writes in his book The Non-Existent Manuscript that The Protocols was actually an anti-Semitic satire on a seminar organised by Russian Zionists. Anti-Semitism was peaking in Russia at the time, and this is why this satire was then published more widely, but this time as fact, according to Michelis.

After doing the rounds in Russia, The Protocols reached the US in 1917. In 1921, US car manufacturer Henry Ford financed the publishing of 50,000 copies of the tome. He also published a series of articles inspired by the book in a newspaper that he owned. The articles all appeared under the title “The International Jew”. Everything from the communist revolution in Russia to the creation of trade unions and inter-racial marriages in the West was blamed on the Jews.

In 1922, the book and the articles were translated into German and became popular in Germany. It would go on to influence the ideology of Nazism in that country. It didn’t matter that the British daily The Times had already thoroughly exposed the book as a hoax and a forgery.

At the end of World War II, when facts about the Holocaust began to emerge, the book lost mainstream traction and readership in Europe and the US, and was relegated to the right-wing fringe. 

But it rebounded by finding a brand new audience in the Arab world after the creation of Israel in 1948 (at the expense of the region’s Palestinians). Its first Arabic translation appeared in 1951 in Egypt. It soon made its way into the non-Arab Muslim world as well.

I am not sure when it appeared in Pakistan as an Urdu translation, but I once found a 1968 Urdu edition of it in a second-hand book store in Islamabad in 2005. In 1987, when the Palestinian Islamist outfit Hamas was formed, its first charter (published in 1988) heavily referenced The Protocols.   

But by then the book had already begun to lose purchase in the Muslim world as well, until it returned with a bang a decade or so latter due to the internet explosion. 

Uploaded by Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups and by various Islamist outfits, The Protocols once again managed to migrate from the fringes to the mainstream. 

Its readers again outnumber those who are more interested in reading the many exposés that completely debunked the book as a vicious fraud.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 15th, 2019