On Conspiracy Theories and Uncomfortable Truths
Grappling with conspiracy theories from another culture requires a sustained and concerted exercise of empathy; an effort many fail to undertake when confronted with alternative histories and explanations that challenge their own conventional wisdoms. Reflections from Mauritania and Nigeria.
“Was it really the Islamists who burned the manuscripts in Timbuktu, or was it the French?”
That was the question posed to me by a well-travelled, trilingual religious scholar in Mauritania last month.
For anyone who followed the recent crisis in Mali, the question was a preposterous one. The religious fanatics who destroyed Timbuktu did so openly, methodically, and with calculated fanfare. But for this particular scholar, the news reports about al-Qaeda affiliates burning Islamic texts and knocking down sacred mausoleums seemed far-fetched.
“Why would devout Muslims destroy their own culture?” he wondered. “Could the story have been fabricated to justify a French intervention? Perhaps it was the French themselves who wanted to blame the Islamists?”
This man was proposing a type of conspiracy theory that, as an American who has lived most of the last five years in the Sahel and Sahara, I’ve encountered with regularity.
In many ways, these alleged dark plots and false flags are not all that different from those that ricochet through the American public discourse from time to time. Yet there is a fundamental difference between engaging conspiracy theories from my own culture and those that emanate from others.
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