Immediately after the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, rumors about it swirled through the streets, coffee shops, and Internet cafés of the Middle East, Pakistan, and other parts of the Muslim world. The raid took place, some claimed, only to hand U.S. President Barack Obama a political victory, or to give him political cover for the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Other, more outlandish, theories proposed that bin Laden had been collaborating with Washington all along. Another one had it that bin Laden died years ago but that his body had been frozen and retained for later use by the United States; still others suggested that he remained alive. “There are numerous question marks still seeking clear and honest answers from the American administration,” went an opinion piece in the Palestinian paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. “Why did we not see the corpse of the Sheikh until this moment, while all we have heard was that it was ‘buried’ at sea because his homeland the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia refused to receive it?” Some have even suggested that the world’s most wanted terrorist was not real but an American invention.

Conspiracy theories like these are especially common in the Middle East and western Asia. Why? At the simplest level, conspiracy theories in the region are a way of displaying skepticism toward the United States. But they can also be earnest attempts by the angry to explain dramatic events, particularly when people have difficulty accepting them: most residents of Abbottabad were no doubt amazed to learn that they had been neighbors of bin Laden. Media reports have quoted some Abbottabad locals as saying that in the absence of any evidence that bin Laden or other Arab extremists had been living in the town, the bin Laden story simply had to be a conspiracy.

One reason the region is so susceptible to conspiracy theories is that it has been subject to an unusually high number of actual conspiracies in the past. The overthrow of Iranian President Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 was driven by a secret U.S. and British plot to remove him, and the 1956 Suez War was the result of a covert British-French-Israeli agreement struck in France. Thus, today’s conspiracy theorists often cite real conspiracies of the past as evidence for present-day ones. During the 2003 Iraq war, for example, many Middle Eastern commentators brought up the Suez War: If one generation of foreigners could craft a scheme to conquer a recalcitrant Arab leader, the argument went, why could another not do the same, half a century later? Now, as conspiracies about bin Laden gain currency, those peddling them will likely point to past American plots in the Muslim world, real or imagined, for support.

Conspiracy theories also flourish where people feel disempowered -- a condition that applies to the Muslim world. In much of the region today, there is  a sense of ideological aimlessness and a feeling that the region, for all its history, is unfairly weak and vulnerable compared to the West. Even bin Laden used rhetoric along these lines, justifying jihad as a counterattack against a conspiracy and explaining the Crusades as a Western and Christian conspiracy against Islam. Conspiracy theorists seek to counter these sentiments of disempowerment. Feeling as though one possesses rare or secret knowledge and controlling who shares such information can bring one a sense of power and privilege. This is true even at the societal level: a culture that feels vulnerable can find solace in a conspiratorial perspective of their condition.

Another factor explaining the ubiquity of conspiracy thinking in the Middle East is the presence of authoritarian governments there. Dictators may spread such ideas themselves as propaganda, to confuse their citizens, divide the opposition, or rally support for the regime or nation. (They may also tolerate or nurture conspiracy claims coming from society, usually for the same reasons.) At times, leaders or elites in Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and elsewhere have mouthed conspiracy theories or encouraged others to do so. In the past few months, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi have each cited foreign conspiracies as a source of protests in their countries; the Iranian leadership often justifies the regime’s actions as a response to U.S. or “Zionist” plots. While bin Laden enjoyed little sympathy among the rulers of the Middle East, if conspiracy theories about him mean that people pay less attention to examining their own governments, few leaders will try to stop conspiracy talk.

Given how common conspiracy theories are, and how fragmented, conflict-prone, and anti-American the Middle East can be, is there any hope of conspiracy claims being countered? Direct counterargument is useless; it is exactly what conspiracy theorists expect from a plotter, and it may even strengthen their case. This is why it is a mistake for the U.S. State Department to engage conspiracy theories as it does, posting takedowns of them on its Web site. While understandable, such initiatives are probably futile in changing the views of those most being targeted. Likewise, releasing a photograph of bin Laden’s body will convince only those who remain open-minded about bin Laden’s death: it will have no impact on die-hard conspiracy theorists, or even those customarily suspicious of the United States.

In fact, countering conspiracy theories is extremely difficult. To ignore the claims being made is often the only practical tactic, but rarely will that eliminate or weaken the charge being made or its appeal. When a conspiracy theory dies, it is usually because it becomes redundant by losing its validity, relevance, or believability. Most anti-Catholic and anti-Mason conspiracies in the United States have atrophied this way, and in the Middle East, conspiracies about French or Soviet meddling have mostly disappeared, too. Yet while undermining the complaints or fears that drive a conspiracy theory is possible, it takes an inordinately long time.

The alternative is to promote transparency as an antidote to conspiracy. A more open government is less threatening to its people, and institutions and businesses that are more responsive will also seem less malevolent or suspicious. Although mistrust between state and society -- and across national and cultural boundaries -- is a root of conspiracy theories in the Muslim world, addressing it is nearly impossible. It requires substantive domestic political reform (if not democratization), a true attack on corruption and nepotism, and genuine social reforms that protect minorities and subgroups.

But the problem is that most of the Middle East and western Asia is struggling with economic challenges and social and political cleavages. Despite the success of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in recent months, much of the region continues to live under autocratic or authoritarian regimes. The reforms that might help counter conspiracy theories are especially improbable in developing societies with weak states. This is one reason for the preponderance and endurance of conspiracy theories in much of the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. And it is one reason why development, liberalization, and transparency will not bring about the demise of conspiracy theories there anytime soon.

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  • MATTHEW GRAY is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University and the author of Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World: Sources and Politics.
  • More By Matthew Gray