It’s no laughing matter – time to challenge conspiracy

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MAAS will be building a library of useful aids to challenge anti-Semitism. We will take manifestations of anti-Semitism and provide useful means to help you challenge them. First in this series we are looking at collective blame and conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. 9/11 has seen hateful narratives created against both Muslims and Jews and in seeing how both of theses narratives have been created, their basis and why they are both false and dangerous we hope that you will have useful information to challenge these perceptions yourself.

Twin towers: The Jews did it! The Muslims did it!

 

Conspiracy theories might seem crazy, sometimes amusing but definitely not worth our time or attention. Wrong. Conspiratorial blaming around the twin towers provides a strong example as to why we must pay heed to conspiracy theories and dedicate time to challenging them.

On September 11th 2001 the Islamist extremist group, al-Qaeda, used four passenger airliners as weapons to attack the United States killing 2,996 people and injuring 6,000 others, causing Wall Street to close, resulting in a global economic downturn and closing civilian airspace in the US and Canada for two days. Despite the catastrophic effects this terror attack had on civilians and the economy, some adopt a belief that all Muslims were tacitly involved, or that it was not an Islamist extremist terror attack at all but an attack by the Jews.

Let us take first the notion that all Muslims are to blame for 9/11:

The thinking is this: 9/11 was perpetrated by Muslims therefore all Muslims are a threat. This kind of thinking saw hate crime against Muslims rise from 28 reported incidents to 481 in 2001 following 9/11.[1] It is the type of thinking that results in consistent spikes in anti-Muslim hate following Islamist inspired attacks. It relies on the belief that all Muslims are ideologically aligned and violently inclined. It is in fact a very easy fallacy to contest; firstly Muslims believe in a number of different interpretations of Islam belonging to a number of branches and can never ideologically be treated as a whole.

A useful parallel to draw here is with the Westboro Baptist Church: this widely reviled Christian sect spreads hate speech and is considered a hate group by nearly everyone, yet no-one would consider this group to be representative of Christian belief and practice as a whole.

Secondly even of those who adopt an extreme literalist interpretation of Islam are unlikely to believe in violent Jihad as a means to achieve religious/ political goals. For example, Saudi Arabians whose dominant faith is Salafi/ Wahabism, which insists on a literalist interpretation of the Qu’uran, and has been accused of laying fertile ground for terrorism, mainly emphasize dawa and reform as a way for spreading their ideology rather than violence.[2]

A useful parallel here is violent attacks perpetrated by the far right: even the most right leaning people in this country abhor far right violence like the killing of MP Jo Cox, yet they continue to disagree with her politics and may be accused of laying fertile ground for future violence. To conclude here there are a plethora of beliefs within Islam and even the distinct minority who adopt a literalist view are very unlikely to agree with violent measures. Therefore, despite the attackers of 9/11 being Muslim it does not follow that all Muslims should be considered a threat.

Now let us turn to the conspiracy theory that Jews were behind 9/11:

Hezbollah’s television station Al-Manar ‘reported’ that 4,000 Israelis employed at the World Trade Centre did not show up for work that day because they were told in advance of the attacks. This then became central to the conspiracy that it was Israel and the Jews, not Al-Qaeda, that perpetrated 9/11. [3] In fact it is estimated that 400 Jews died in the attack.[4]

Unfortunately, a conspiracy theory like this is not surprising: there is a concerning popular point of view that Jews control world affairs. A recent CNN survey showed that 28% of Europeans believe that Jews have too much power over business and finance.[5]

Again, we see a diverse and complex group treated as a whole. This is complicated further by conflating being Jewish with actions of the state of Israel. Jews hold a variety of different political and ideological views, and not all Jews believe in the Zionist ideology (the belief in a right to a Jewish homeland) and then many Zionists do not agree with Israeli state action.  So to treat all Jews as a whole and to consider all Jews to be supporters of and actively involved in Israeli state action is again a fallacy.

Both theories have elements of collective blame. Collective blame is the punishing of the whole for the actions of a few.  In these examples Muslims are collectively blamed for terrorist attacks and Jews are collectively blamed for disasters according to an association with Jews and power, wealth and global control.

The problem with collective blame, according to neuroscientist Emile Bruneau co-author of Interventions highlighting hypocrisy reduce collective blame of Muslims for individual acts of violence and assuage anti-Muslim hostility[6] is that “If you collectively blame an entire group for the actions of individuals, it makes it totally reasonable to exact your revenge from any person from that group… You get a cycle going on where each cycle is motivated to commit violence against totally innocent members of the other group.”[7]  The obvious example here is the Holocaust. The Jews were blamed for the economic problems Germany faced and were painted as a threat to national security and prosperity. As the nationalist propaganda began to take root, the majority of German citizens accepted, encouraged and even participated in the mistreatment of Jews under Nazi rule. To give an even more direct example, Kristallnacht, when 267 synagogues were destroyed and an estimated 90 Jews murdered by the SA and civilians, was seemingly in response to the assassination of the Nazi German diplomat by a German- born Polish Jew, but can be seen as a direct result of shifting blame collectively, where one Jewish person’s actions were used to instigate aggression of the whole community.

As this article has shown, conspiracy theories and collective blame should not be treated as a joke. In the fight against the rise in both Anti-Muslim hate and anti-Semitism conspiratorial thinking, sweeping generalisation and collective blame must be consistently challenged. An easy way to do this is to get accustomed to the common conspiracy theories, do some research on the facts and keep them ready for potential discussions that head in this dark direction. Pointing out hypocrisy and ‘fake news’ are the best way to challenge the theories. As well as pointing out how dangerous conspiracy theories and connected collective blame can be.

It may also be useful to consider why conspiracy theories are formed at all. Conspiracy theories are often created to either shift blame from a certain group or pin blame on another group. It is no surprise then that Jewish conspiracies surrounding 9/11 are widely held across the Middle East. Another reason may be to make sense of reality when it goes against set beliefs, for example: those who do not believe that we had the technology to go the moon, may adopt conspiracy theories advocating that the moon landing was faked. They can also empower the conspiracy theorists with a sense of superiority as they might feel they know something others don’t, and that they have unmasked something that those in power do not want them to know.

As David Baddiel put: ‘Conspiracy theories are a way for idiots to feel like intellectuals.’

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/conspiracy_files/6341851.stm

[2] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-110shrg40579/html/CHRG-110shrg40579.htm

[3] https://web.archive.org/web/20110604144105/http://www.adl.org/ADL_Opinions/Anti_Semitism_Arab/911_Conspiracies.htm

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20021010020906/http://www.thejewishweek.com/bottom/specialcontent.php3?artid=362

[5] http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2018/11/europe/antisemitism-poll-2018-intl/

[6] http://pcnlab.asc.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/CB_R1_accepted_10-10-17.pdf

[7] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/11/30/16645024/collective-blame-psychology-muslim

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The Colour of Cows in Scotland: Why Fighting Antisemitism Is A Fight Against Islamophobia

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When asked the reasons of our fervour against antisemitism, we might be tempted to scoff at the questions and the suspicions that an obviously Muslim organisation fighting so vociferously against antisemitism might engender, yet we resist the temptation to dismiss such concerns out of hand. Not only because we understand there are so many other issues our brothers and sisters from all faiths might want us to consider, like islamophobia, Israel and Palestine, on one side of the spectrum, and gender equality, and homophobia on the other, but because we firmly believe in the power for change our approach will bring to all issues. Let me elaborate.

We are keenly aware of all the problems our society and communities face, and in an ideal world, every humanitarian organisation should deal with all issues at all times, and perhaps our exclusive focus on such a divisive topic might be a justifiable reason to view our endeavour with surprise or even mistrust.

It is, however, not just a case of arbitrarily picking a controversial issue for the sake of it, but rather of believing that creating a momentum within the Muslim community towards the fight against antisemitism, is a way towards a solution to all the most pernicious and problematic issues all our communities face, and specifically a catalyst in the fight against islamophobia.

This is more logical than the counterintuitive nature of the statement might suggest: bias, the cause of prejudice, is rooted in natural, and seemingly benign assumptions we all quite innocently and automatically make in our attempt to make sense of the world. The cognitive processes we employ in our day-to-day decisions, favour an all-encompassing approach to reality and human interaction, without which the level of information needed to deal with reality in a totally unbiased way would be too great.

Consider the famous joke in Mark Haddon’s award-winning book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:

“There are three men on a train. One of them is an economist and one of them is a logician and one of them is a mathematician. 

And they have just crossed the border into Scotland (I don’t know why they are going to Scotland) and they see a brown cow standing in a field from the window of the train (and the cow is standing parallel to the train). 

And the economist says, ‘Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.’ And the logician says, ‘No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown.’ And the mathematician says, ‘No. There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown.'”

In Haddon’s book the joke is told by the protagonist to extol the superiority of maths over all the sciences, but it is a good example of how our brain works, and how complex reality requires a lot of data processing.

The case of the cow in the field in Scotland is a simple example of a rather simple reality, the problem is that we tend to make observation about very complex realities in the very same simplistic way. This is not because we are foolish or careless, but because, as already seen above, we cannot be wasting time every time we glance outside the window of a moving train to consider all possibilities.

The consequences of these cognitive shortcuts are insignificant when it is a cow in a field quickly disappearing from view, but become problematic when we apply this quick decision making to the complex realities of human behaviour and belief. As The Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin puts it in her article Unconscious bias: what is it and can it be eliminated?

“Scientists believe that stereotypes in general serve a purpose because clustering people into groups with expected traits help us navigate the world without being overwhelmed by information. The downside is that the potential for prejudice is hard-wired into human cognition.”

And this is why the colour of the cow is ultimately so important: by rejecting our normal cognitive processes when dealing with complex realities, we are less prone to fall prey to prejudice, and it is also why by challenging our most difficult issues, like antisemitism in Muslim communities, we are better placed to engage with an open mind with other issues that affect us all.

Furthermore, by visibly engaging with worthy campaigns, whose influence will benefit people we do not normally affiliate with, we win more support for causes which more directly affect us.

Put simply, when we hear a Priest lending support to LGBT+ tolerance, an imam eloquently exposing antisemitism, or a rabbi vociferously opposing islamophobia, we are not only more likely to sit up and listen, but we might also give a better chance to ideas and concepts we might have not been entirely open to up to then.

Lou Fioravanti is a Senior Researcher with Muslims Against Antisemitism.

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Muslims Against Anti-Semitism is proud to have run this campaign in a national newspaper highlighting the need to tackle anti-Semitism.

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We are committed to ensuring a national debate on challenging hate and in particular, against the oldest hatred in the world. This advert shows our commitment to challenging the hatred of anti-Semitism where we find it, and particularly within small entrenched sections of Muslim communities.

“We Muslims have one word for Jews – Shalom!”

These are some of the wonderful comments we received on the campaign:

I can only stand up and salute you . This is the way forward. Probably the single most important page I have ever seen in a lifetime of reading The Times

As a Jew so thrilled to have heard about your adverts. A perfect example of the true beauty of Muslim faith. Well done

This gives me so much hope and it does not go unappreciated one bit. Thank you x

What a beautiful and welcome message from the Muslim to the Jewish community! Many thanks to Muslims Against Anti-Semitism for this beautiful olive branch. Please share this as it is so refreshing to see good news on social media… we all need it. ps… I feel the same!

In times when the reasons to be hopeful about the future of humankind seem to be waning, messages like this are sorely needed.

This ad in The Times has made my day. Thank you Muslims Against Anti-Semitism

To people in MY country (the U.S.) who say that “good” Muslims never speak up for Jews. Here’s proof you are wrong.

Ramadan Mubarak and thank you for your courage and friendship. I will strive to be as good an ally to Muslims facing hate in my country. Blessings.

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