Gulf News, May 2, 2007
The Muslim world seems to be in the grip of all kinds of rumours. The willingness of large numbers of Muslims to believe some outrageous assertions reflects pervasive insecurity coupled with widespread ignorance.
The contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories limits the capacity for rational discussion of international affairs. For example, a recent poll indicates that only 3 per cent of Pakistanis believe that Al Qaida was responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the US, notwithstanding Osama Bin Laden and his deputies have taken credit for the attacks on more than one occasion.
The acceptance of rumours and the readiness to embrace the notion of a conspiracy does not apply exclusively to the realm of politics. Villagers in rural Nigeria are refusing to administer the polio vaccine to their infant children out of fear that the vaccine will make their offspring sterile.
Some religious leaders in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanis-tan have also voiced concerns about a “Western-Zionist conspiracy” to sterilise the next generation of Muslims as part of what they allege is an “ongoing war against Islam”.
Mobile phones and the internet, the pervasiveness of which is often cited as a measure of a society’s progress and modernity, have become a means of spreading fear in the Muslim world. Text messages, originating from the Pakistani city of Sialkot, recently warned people of a virus if people answered phone calls from certain numbers. The virus would not hurt the phone, the messages said, but would rather kill the recipient.
The panic caused by the rumours forced the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to issue a denial. Phone companies sent out text messages urging people to be calm. A newspaper rejected the rumour but featured the headline, Killer Mobile Virus.
A text message widely circulated in an Arab country claimed that trucks carrying a million melons had been smuggled across the country’s northern border and the melons were contaminated with the HIV virus, which causes Aids. No one paid any attention to the fact that the HIV virus cannot be transmitted by eating melons.
The Muslim world has a high rate of illiteracy but ignorance reflected by the readiness to believe unverified (and sometimes totally outrageous) claims is not just a function of illiteracy. It is a function of bigotry and fear. Literate Muslims, such as those involved in the text message rumour-mongering, are as vulnerable to ignorant behaviour as illiterate ones.
Conspiracy theories have been popular among Muslims since the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire as a way of explaining the powerlessness of a community that was at one time the world’s economic, scientific, political and military leader.
The erosion of the leadership position of Muslims coincided with the West’s gradual technological ascendancy.
The Persian, Mughal and Ottoman empires controlled vast lands and resources but many important scientific discoveries and inventions since the 15th century came about in Europe and not in the Muslim lands.
Ignorance is an attitude and the world’s Muslims have to analyse, debate and face it before they can deal with it.
The 57-member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) have around 500 universities compared with more than 5,000 universities in the US and more than 8,000 in India. In 2004, Shanghai Jiao Tong University compiled an “Academic Ranking of World Universities”, and none of the universities from Muslim-majority states was included in the top 500.
The Muslim world spends 0.2 per cent of its GDP on research and development, while the Western nations spend around five per cent of GDP on producing knowledge.
The tendency of Muslim masses to accept rumours as fact and the readiness to believe anything that suggests a non-Muslim conspiracy to weaken or undermine the Muslims is the result of the overall feeling of helplessness and decline that permeates the Muslim world.
Most Muslim scholars and leaders try to explain Muslim decline through the prism of the injustices of colonialism and the subsequent ebb and flow of global distribution of power.
But Muslims are not weak only because they were colonised. They were colonised because they had become weak.
Conspiracy theories paper over the knowledge deficit and the general attitude of ignorance in the Muslim world. It is time for a discussion of the Ummah’s decline in the context of failure to produce and consume knowledge and absorb verifiable facts.