Courtesy Reuters

The Bin Laden Conspiracy Theories

Why Falsehoods Flourish in the Muslim World

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.

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