The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy
by Daniel Pipes
St. Martin’s. 404 pp. $45.00
The Hidden Hand is a remarkable work of scholarship. Daniel Pipes, the editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a specialist on Arab affairs, has pulled together an enormous body of writing from a broad array of sources—journals, memoirs, speeches, and sermons—to illuminate a salient aspect of Middle Eastern political reality: the pervasive belief in Muslim and Arab society that conspiracies and secret dealings—a “hidden hand”—lie behind much of what happens in the world, and that these explain the relative superiority of Israel and the West. “Analyzing the region without taking [belief in] the hidden hand into account,” writes Pipes, “is comparable to studying the American economy without Wall Street or Soviet politics without Marxism-Leninism.”
One of the more enduring convictions examined in The Hidden Hand is that the state of Israel is following a secret plan, inspired by the Bible, to expand across the Middle East and usurp Arab lands. As early as 1937, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud confided to a British diplomat that
the Jews contemplate as their final aim not only the seizure of all Palestine but the land south of it as far as Medina. Eastward also they hope some day to extend to the Persian Gulf.
In subsequent decades this same claim has been repeated thousands of times, often by those occupying the highest offices of state, and without the slightest concern for evidence that might support or refute it. Thus, the presidents of both Syria and Iran have asserted recently that the entrance wall of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, bears an engraved message: “The Land of Israel from the Euphrates to the Nile.” That the assertion is easily disproved lessens not at all the certainty with which it is advanced.
Indeed, as Pipes shows, a more detailed exposition of the same idea is a staple of Yasir Arafat, chairman of the PLO. Speaking before the United Nations Security Council in 1990, Arafat claimed to have irrefutable proof of Israel’s intentions. “Please allow me to show you this document,” Arafat told the assembled diplomats, and then displayed an Israeli coin which bore on its face what he described as a “map of Greater Israel.” The coin, Arafat declared, demonstrated Israel’s intent to annex
all of Palestine, all of Lebanon, half of Syria, two-thirds of Iraq, one-third of Saudi Arabia as far as holy Medina, and half of Sinai.
In fact, however, the coin which served as Arafat’s prop had been patterned after one minted by King Mattathias Antigonus II in 37 B.C.E., and the image on it bore only the vaguest resemblance to a map of the Middle East.
The Hidden Hand contains a rich inventory of similarly wild conspiracies that never were. But it is far more than a compendium of paranoid ideas. It raises, and proceeds to answer, a number of crucial questions. Why are the countries of the Arab world and Iran so prone to this style of thinking? Why do most of the conspiracies in circulation seem to center on the allegedly nefarious doings of Zionists and imperialists? And, finally, do the political leaders who spin such tales of intrigue actually believe in their own spurious words?
The burgeoning trade in conspiracy theories is, Pipes observes, a relatively recent phenomenon in the Arab world, one rooted in a reaction to civilizational decline. Ever since Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, Arabs have been burdened by a sense that history has somehow gone terribly awry: as the despised West sets the pace and dominates, they lag ingloriously behind. Conspiracy theories allow those who purvey them to cast blame for the ignominy away from themselves and onto powerful “others.”
As for the actual content of the conspiracy theories which have proved most persistent, it derives, ironically enough, from the European West. In Europe’s own tradition of conspiratorial thought, Jews were often the main scapegoats, and so it is not hard to understand how, along with everything else that came to the Middle East in the age of European imperialism, the figure of the Jews, in the form of Zionists and Israelis, should have begun to assume diabolical proportions in the imagination of many Muslims. To take just one example of how a European myth has been, in Pipes’s apt phrase, “preserved in amber,” the turn-of-the-century Russian forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is not only cited by title in Article 32 of the charter of the Islamic fundamentalist group, Hamas, but has gained wide currency throughout the Arab world.
Whether Middle Eastern leaders truly believe in the often bizarre propositions they posit is ultimately difficult to say. Pipes argues that conspiracy theories are spun for a wide variety of reasons, foremost among them the need, or the impulse, to manipulate the Arab masses. But “routinized repetition,” he adds, “has a cumulative effect.” Both rulers and ruled come, in the end, to accept their own lies as fact.
The consequences of this are by no means innocuous. For one thing, the widespread conviction in the Arab world that Israel is engaged in a conspiracy to dominate the region transforms the Jewish state into an entity with which, by definition, one cannot coexist. For another, the deeply ingrained habit of blaming all ills on Western and Jewish intrigues encourages political irresponsibility at home. As Pipes puts it, “conspiracy theories obstruct modernization itself,” and prevent the inhabitants of the Muslim world “from achieving the advancement they crave.” In this enlightening study, he shows just how deeply the problem lies, and how thoroughgoing a mental revolution will be required to address it.