17 April, 2008
By Dr. Ghayur Ayub
The world history is full of conspiracy theories but the belief became a topic of interest for sociologists and psychologists since the 1960s, when the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy provoked an overwhelming public response directed against the official version of the case as presented in the Report of the Warren Commission. The theory gets prominent in nations going through turmoil dividing public into those who oppose it and those who support it. This term has become like a curse when applied to the tragedy of 9.11. Let’s not talk of that which lit fire in our neighbouring country, though the present discussion has unspoken links.
Last year, after ousting Iftikhar Chaudry, President Musharaf, finding things going out of control, claimed a conspiracy was being hatched against him. It was a shocking statement, as it was against general belief that, in the third world, conspiracies are usually hatched by the agencies that are under the control of the government. Was he getting paranoid after losing total control of 7 years over the government machineries? Or were there conspirators sabotaging his plans? I am not going to discuss his plans for the month of October 2007, when the tenure of his presidency, keeping his uniform and the term of his preferred assembly were coming to an end. Enough has already been said and written on that, I will only talk about the concept of conspiracies and its waves which hit our homeland at various levels.
According to Floyd Rudmin, a member of the Psychology Department, University of Tromsø, Tromsø, Norway, “Conspiracy theory is usually used as a pejorative label, which is paranoid, nutty, marginal, and certainly untrue. The power of this pejorative is that it discounts a theory by attacking the motivations and mental competence of those who advocate the theory.” There was a time when such labels were given to heresy and witchery, but these labels at least retained some sense of potency. In a seemingly stable society, some members who are sympathetic to new thoughts might shy away from the new thoughts and join in the shunning due to fear of being tainted as conspirators. For example, Canadian journalist Robert Sibley has said that conspiracy theory is "a nihilistic vortex of delusion and superstition that negates reality itself." The reverse might be true for some as conspiracy theories arise when dramatic events happen and the orthodox explanations try to diminish the events fail. In other words, conspiracy theories begin when someone notices that the explanations do not fit the facts as was observed in Warren report.
It is interesting to see that people talk of conspiracy theory after an event has already happened and use it as a political act in the shape of an after-the-fact complaint. It is created in response to a non-acceptable official explanation. The theory presumes that to pursue supremacy, the power-holders indulge in unholy acts of planning, cheating and deceiving. Thus, they might not focus their theories on impersonal forces like geo-politics, market economics, globalization and social evolution.
To see conspiracies while they are happening would require the resources and powers of police forces and espionage agencies. According to this account, the above-mentioned statement by general Musharaf who was at the helm of affairs controlling the relevant forces, paints a picture close to reality. But at the same time, his claim made no sense because it did not fall in the gambit of conspiracy theory. Calling his statement naïve would not mean that it was uncritical or foolishly innocent. It was contradictory to the fact that when significant political and economic change appeared, ordinary Pakistanis saw contradictions in his explanations creating concern and curiosity. They sought further information under the presumption that power was being abused.
Pakistanis, who believe in conspiracies, think they are serving the public good. Often their motivations are patriotic and with good reason. They think democracy operable during Musharaf’s time was built on distrust of him and all his men. As a result, the public lost confidence in the democratic safeguards like habeas corpus, judicial trials, and independent courts. Because of distrust, the opposition parties and independent press were expected to question and criticize the government, and the government was expected to answer. By this time, the investigative journalism of free press budded as the Fifth Estate instead of the usual Fourth. (The religious custodians, the aristocracy and those who live off capital being the First, Second and Third Estates respectively.) It took over as translator of the balance of powers. It was at that time when, Shaukat Aziz working independently (based on his grudge for Ch. Iftekhar) or under instructions (that’s where conspiracy theory arises), made a move which proved to be fatal politically for Musharaf. And by chance or by design, lawyers’ movement spearheaded by Aitezaz and his colleagues took advantage of the Fifth Estate or vice versa, whichever way one looks at it. Was the action of March 9th a chance, a coincidence or part of conspiracy? The actual answer will be difficult to find. But one thing is sure, if it wasn’t for the Fifth Estate, Ch.Iftekhar’s removal would have been history; dead and buried.
Coming down to the present day scenario in Pakistan, it seems the conspirators are active from four sides; the opposition who oppose the president; the advisors in the presidency; the opposition who support the president; and those who are in between. It is the last two groups which could harm the independent institutions the most, as they are not choosy about their bedfellows. They are the effective tools of a conspiracy theory. They know that conspiracy theory is by its very nature impossible to disprove. They spin tales, knowing it would be difficult to prove or disprove their untruthfulness. At the same time, if the notion turns bogus, they could laugh it out by saying as a common joke, "just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean the world isn't really out to get me!’ So let us acknowledge that there are conspirators out there who have plots, plans, and ideas that are secret, bad, and even dangerous.
Some of them call their action not conspiracy but simple human nature, equating their action to having liking for particular schools, sources of talent, consultants, etc. based on past history of success. While others among them believe that real conspiracies work best when small and short lived and that an "unseen hand" is guiding them. With this paradox in their perceptions, the conspirators opt for strange bedfellows and take significant energy and plan what they believe is good for them, in spite of knowing that they are vulnerable to the light of scrutiny. Their mental layout can be linked to what Daniel Pipes wrote in his early essay, in which he pinned down what beliefs distinguish 'the conspiracy mentality' from 'more conventional patterns of thought': appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains; power, fame, money, and sex account for all .
They do not fit in the definition given by some psychologists that a person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others; a person who does not believe in one conspiracy theory tends not to believe another. On the other hand, they can be called the ‘exhaust fumes of democracy’; a term used by Christopher Hitchens describing the conspiracy theories.
They are spreading, confusing rumors as part of conspiracy theories about Charter of Democracy, Murree Declaration, reinstatement of sacked judges, ‘Minus one Theory’ etc. To make things worse, it is reported that those who matter are aware of the "conspirators" and the "conspiracies" being hatched by certain quarters to encourage confrontation between different institutions of the state. It is further reported that those who matter are also aware of the "dirty role" of some players, who are apparently posing as well wishers but are well known for their dubious characters and devious designs.
Suggestions provided by a prominent journalist, Ansar Abbasi can clamp down part of the current productivity of conspiracy industry run by the conspirators. He writes “If things proceed as planned in the Murree Declaration, the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry would be back as Chief Justice of Pakistan while the present Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar would revert to his original seniority as it was on Nov 2. The remaining judges of the present superior judiciary and those who were deposed would also regain their own seniority as it was on Nov 2.” This will be a positive step in the right direction minimizing rumours dispersed by the conspirators, which provide tasteful recipe to those who take pleasure in spreading conspiracies.