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Rumours and conspiracies

March 29, 2013

WASN’T the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan said to have been about our warm waters? Never mind whether it was the Cold War or Charlie Wilson’s war, wasn’t there the obscure theory that the USSR, not having maritime access commensurate with its superpower status, must be after the Balochistan coastline?

They never came for it, nor has anything been found in declassified documents or in scholarly literature to lend credence to that fantastic hypothesis. In 1979, armed men seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca. Even in those innocuous times, who but the Americans could have been behind it? Within hours, a mob had razed the US embassy in Islamabad to the ground. Turned out, it wasn’t the Americans at all but Saudi Arabia’s domestic politics.

The early 1990s was a terrible period of ethnic and criminal violence in Karachi. Spurred by migration from tribal and rural up-country regions, the scramble for Karachi’s living spaces had begun. Talk began to be heard about a sinister plan to detach Karachi from the rest of Pakistan.

After Hong Kong reverts to communist China in 1997, the Western banks and businesses there would need an alternate haven, went the conspiratorial claim. And even as it was causing a speculative spree on Karachi’s property market, the theory failed to take into account Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s experiment with market capitalism and the special economic zones that had started as far back as 1980. It also did not explain who was seeking Karachi, to the preclusion of better Asian candidate cities, as an alternative to Hong Kong.

Who carried out the 9/11 attacks? Well, Jews, of course.

How did this theory originate? A story in the internet edition of the Jerusalem Post of Sept 12 of that year mentioned that the Israeli foreign ministry was collecting the names of 4,000 Israelis believed to have been in the areas of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon at the time of the attacks. By the time a Jordanian paper ran its own story, Israelis had been interchanged with Jewish Americans and “unaccounted for” had been lost in translation to mean not having shown up for work. That squared the circle — they knew in advance, proof they’re responsible.

As human beings we carry simplified representations of reality in our heads which form our beliefs and preconceptions. Encountering a phenomenon in conflict with these preconceptions becomes a cause of tension and discomfort — in psychology referred to as cognitive dissonance.

How can Muslims have done this in the name of Islam? Either we modify the belief to accommodate the new facts or — if the fuse doesn’t blow, the appliance will — our judgment about that phenomenon becomes distorted. This irons out the discomfort and allows people to continue to hold on to their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A major motivation for the propagator of the conspiracy theory is the sense of importance it brings. “Why do you think Nato is in Afghanistan?” The propagator will lean forward and, lowering their voice, give you the inside scoop: “Afghanistan has $1 trillion of mineral wealth.”

Never mind the fact that America does not have much of a primary commodities processing industry that could make use of this supposed mineral wealth. China does, but then assuming that if anybody wanted ores and minerals from Afghanistan, wouldn’t it be simpler to follow the commercial route in which one of the companies can go in and negotiate a mining lease?

In some ways a conspiracy theory is akin to the concept of a scapegoat: a convenient and intellectually lazy way to shift blame for one’s own predicament — it’s not our fault, it’s them! Extreme forms can take on mass psychosis, of the type that gripped Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.

Who killed Benazir Bhutto? Zardari obviously.

Why would he want to do that? (Leave alone how he could manage that in General Musharraf’s Pakistan.)

“So that he could take over the party and become the country’s president,” quickly comes the retort.

To believe this, one has to take not one but several leaps of faith, one after the other. The first bet is that within weeks of BB’s death, the dictator-general would honour his pledge to hold elections. Suppose Musharraf had reneged, and locked up Zardari for murder? What was plan b? The second bet is on the outcome of elections 2008 being different from 2002. Who was to say that with Benazir gone, the PPP would not split up into factions? Who knew with certainty that it would instead go on to win against the king’s party? Then, in the next act, the military strongman has to become a strawman and resign. Finally, Zardari has to get elected as president, which he does eventually — and through a consensus in broad daylight, not by conspiracy. But then comes a huge anticlimax: having got there, he strips himself of all powers.

Sounds bizarre? Conspiracy theories are. Here’s another one:

Perturbed by the population bomb of anti-American and radicalising youth in Pakistan, Western intelligence agencies are collecting data through tracking the social media, closed-circuit television footage of attendances at rallies and activity at polling booths. Unwittingly, Pied Piper Imran Khan — playing the tune on the wrong side of the war — is serving as an invaluable sieve. After the dust settles and everyone’s gone home, there will be extensive lists, identified using facial recognition technology, of security risks for Western countries. Millions of names collected thus would be sent to Western embassies in Islamabad to be barred from travel, visas, admissions, jobs or scholarships. In the end, the war will be won using biometrics and data processing.

The writer is a strategist and entrepreneur.