Today’s Guardian carries a story about the tendency amongst the ordinary man to believe in conspiracy theories, in this case focusing on the mass murders on the London transport system last July. Muslims are not alone in harbouring this tendency – the book Londonistan by a famous British commentator describes a vast conspiracy in which you and I are set on conquering this land against the back-drop of a liberal, anti-Semitic media agenda – but there is no denying it exists amongst us.
When in the afternoon of 11 September 2001 our production manager at work informed us that somebody had flown a plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, by initial foreboding thought was that Muslims were involved. I wasn’t aware of the scale at that stage: in my mind I had the picture of a tiny single-prop Cessna and the memory of the 1993 plot to explode a bomb underneath the towers. When I returned home that evening and saw the images on the TV news, that initial reaction changed. Overtaken by emotion, I was almost physically sick, the repeated images burning my eyes, and I could no longer accept that initial conclusion of mine. This wasn’t the action of a single nutter, incinerating himself as his plane disintegrated as it crashed through the windows; here was a calculated, co-ordinated act of extreme brutality in which two commercial jets had been flown with absolute precision to their destination, massacring a civilian population. As one who had looked into the concept of war in Islamic Law, which prohibits any action that would cause harm to non-combatants – even to the extent that Muslim soldiers may not interfere with fruit trees – I could not accept that Muslims were responsible.
So when an ordinarily sensible brother sent me a link to an article on a website entitled “What really happened?” I, like many other otherwise intelligent Muslims, found myself clinging to alternative theories and the many questions. It didn’t help that the media had been reporting ridiculous stories about the terrorist mastermind’s passport being found in the rubble of the World Trade Centre, not to mention the “Smoking Gun” video featuring the fat Bin Laden. For a couple of months I was scouring the web for “the truth”, looking for evidence that “we’d been set up”. Much of the speculation was clearly detritus originating with right-wing Christians, Milleniumist, Messianists, Supremacists and others united on pro-gun, anti-federal government, anti-UN and anti-Semitic politics, often with strong views about a move towards one-world-government and a new-world-order. Whackos in common parlance. Still, the doubts remained and all of us wanted to prove that Muslims had no part in that horrific act.
Along came the declassified document concerning Operation Northwoods which had been published on the National Security Archive‘s website in 1998 and featured in a CNN documentary on the Cold War in the same year. Contained within this 1962 document entitled Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba were various proposals or outline plans that could be used to garner public and international support for US military intervention in Cuba. The suggestions included staging sabotages and sinking an American ship at the US Military Base at Guantanamo Bay and blaming it on Cuban forces, hijacking civilian planes, sinking boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba and setting up terrorist attacks in Washington and Miami, blaming it on Communists. Unlike the wild speculation of the internet’s gathering of eccentrics, most of whom had their own quite unpleasant agendas, here was a genuine declassified document which could be viewed independently of the united anti-something extremists. However unlikely it was that the actions of 2001 were part of some grand conspiracy on the part of the US government, this document was evidence that a precedent of past intent existed. Somewhat naively I wrote to Jon Snow at Channel 4 News, pointing him towards the National Security Archive website.
He wrote back, telling me that he would look into it. A week later he went off to New York to see the devastating carnage first hand where he would have concluded – as I did later – that Northwoods was just a long forgotten historical document. Soon afterwards Channel 4 broadcast a documentary debunking 911 Conspiracy Theories.
Over the years since then I have received my fair share of emails exploring one alleged conspiracy or other… cruise missiles disguised as passenger planes, passenger planes fitted with the same technology that controls the SkyHawk drones used to assassinate suspected Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Yemen. But I’m an isnad junkie who likes to trace these kind of emails back to their source – those claims about computer viruses that not even the best brains of Symantec, Norton and Microsoft put together can fix have taken their toll on me – and so most of my friends have learnt not email cynical Tim. Occasionally I revert to thinking that things may not be as they seem, but I’m generally no longer interested. And in any case, we believe in the Day of Judgement when all truth will be told.
When the massacre occurred in London last July, I managed to avoid the conspiracy theories for a whole week. Most of us had been saying for ages that it was only a matter of time before one of the crazies in our community did something like this. Indeed, after the Madrid train bombings I found that even I was looking at my fellow passengers suspiciously on my way to work. So when the explosions occurred last July, I desperately hoped it was the action of extreme Anarchists timed to coincide with the G8 Summit, but I somehow knew it wasn’t. I work in the National Health Service and, although I had moved out of London a month earlier, our organisation was put on standby for an evacuation of injured people as London hospitals filled up. The initial estimates of number of dead were scary, far outnumbering the eventual death toll. All normal work ceased as we went into emergency response mode.
For the days that followed I was extremely angry with the perpetrators. Selfishly my initial thoughts were around how I would have felt had it been my wife who had been cut to pieces. Selfishly my thoughts were about how until a month earlier, that shattered Edgware Road train took me to work every day. And selfishly my thoughts were about this spelling the end to Muslim life in Britain. At work uncomfortable comments were being made about Muslims all around me. But then somebody sent me a link to an article about Peter Powers’ walk-through of a simulated terrorist act which had bombs going off simultaneously at the same stations that had been targeted. It was not long before I was listening to ListenAgain on the BBC website, catching his comments on Radio 5 Live. Soon I was saying to my friends, “things may not be as they seem”. But probably they were. Thank goodness we believe in the Day of Judgement.
Perhaps conspiracy theories are convenient for us, helping us to avoid taking ourselves to account. Seeing a plot were there is none – almost to the point wherein the plotters are considered omnipotent – is considered preferable to putting our house in order. But, to be fair, there are some quite valid reasons why many of us chase after alleged conspiracies from time to time. It is not always tired anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism as is often alleged. It may just be that we know the current state of our community too well. Al-Qaeda is seen as a ruthlessly efficient operation, but we know the state of our mosques whose members often cannot organise themselves well enough to clean the toilets properly. A key characteristic of Al-Qaeda operations is said to be the use of synchronised bombing, and yet we live in a community famed for its laxity around punctuality. So bad are we that lateness is the first non-sunnah a convert pick up when becoming Muslim. Sleeper cells are apparently able to launch operations on their own, and yet we have difficulties taking the initiative to clean the dishes left in the corner from iftar a year ago. I am being cynical, I know, but these are the kind of things that cross our minds every time we hear of these complex operations. But maybe this is just our ignorance.
There have been occasions when I would have been happy to believe in some of the conspiracy theories knocking around out there. The one-world-government new-world-order theory that makes much of George H. W. Bush’s speech on 11 September 1990 has its appeal: why get out of bed in the morning when you know that everything is being controlled by an all-powerful group of individuals. Unfortunately, although its origin lies in fundamentalist Christian eschatology, Muslims are buying into what is at root a nationalist ideology. With each act of barbarity that seems to be the work of Muslims, some sort of need to explain it away arises. Seeking out conspiracy theories is the easy response, but we are people of truth… and if we do not know where the truth lies, we rely on our Creator with who lays all truth. On that awesome day which will last fifty-thousand years, all truth will be made apparent. Thus in this age of confusion, we bide our time clinging to the Book of Allah and the way of Muhammad, peace be upon him. It is our only means of success.