In This Review

The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy
The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy
By Daniel Pipes
St. Martin's Press, 1996, 401 pp.

Anyone who has spent much time in the Middle East will have a favorite example of a conspiracy theory, often involving quite complex and fantastic explanations for the woes of the region. Indeed, one need not travel as far as the Middle East to find conspiracy theories alive and well. But Pipes is convinced that the propensity to see a hidden hand behind much of political reality is a distinctive feature of the Middle East. But is it? And, if so, why? To his credit, Pipes notes that it was not until their relative decline in power vis-ˆ-vis the West that Middle Easterners began to imagine conspiracies. In addition, he notes that, especially in this century, the Middle East has been the stage for many covert actions by outside powers, which have left their mark on a whole generation of writers and political activists. To be convincing, however, Pipes' argument that Middle Easterners are clearly different from other weak, vulnerable, and manipulated peoples would require a systematic comparison with South Asians, Africans, or Latin Americans, which is beyond his scope. That leaves a book-length essay of many anecdotes and explanations on this neglected topic, but not much in the way of in-depth or comparative analysis explaining the causes or importance of Middle East conspiracy theories.

Pipes uses such terms as "laggard people" to describe Middle Easterners in a condescending tone that weakens his argument. He also often writes as if repetition is all it takes to prove his point. But in some cases the authors cited at length sound as though they were paid hacks churning out propaganda that neither they nor their bosses believed. In other cases Pipes' threshold for a conspiracy theory seems remarkably low. Is it really a sign of a conspiratorial mentality to take seriously the allegation that Israel planted a spy disguised as a beggar on the streets of Beirut before the 1982 invasion? And is it really so hard to believe that the CIA tried to recruit a notorious Palestinian terrorist? Aren't those tactics typical of what intelligence agencies do?