“Where is Saddam?” my taxi driver asked in belligerent tones a couple of days after the fall of Baghdad. Hesitantly, and rather shamefacedly (I’d been, I confess, among those expecting the battle of Baghdad), I began to advance a couple of the theories then doing the rounds, only to be interrupted almost immediately. The question, as it turned out, was of a rhetorical nature.
“He’s in America.”
The cab driver answered his own question in no uncertain terms. Indeed, he had it on good authority that not only Saddam, but also Bin Laden was enjoying the good life in good old US of A.
“They’re both American agents, you know; they did all this to give the Americans the pretext to come and occupy the Arab world.”
I did not try to dissuade my driver from this most original of conspiracy theories. (Well, not that original: soon after 9/11 my barber informed me that Bin Laden and Sharon went to the same school — conclusive evidence, in his view, of the Al-Qa’eda leader’s Mossad connections).
Images of the two murderous megalomaniacs sharing a little suburban house in some remote American town were too delicious to dismiss for the sake of what would have inevitably been a futile discussion. My Hollywood-programmed brain, drawing on scenes of American gangsters enjoying FBI hospitality under the witness protection programme, was producing a multitude of comic images: Saddam and Bin Laden walking a Great Dane round the block, buying halal meat at the corner Kosher deli; or else haggling over whose turn it is to do the dishes, or record the next tape addressing the Ummah. What cover story, I wondered frivolously, would the Americans have provided the two house-mates, one a stocky, grim elderly man, the other younger, slim and handsome.
Nonsense you might say — yet another proof of the Arabs’ propensity for conspiracy theories. This latter assertion, I might point out, smacks of racism, even though it is reiterated by certain Arab, no less than American pundits. Rather than accuse the “Arab mind” (whatever that may be) of being enamoured with conspiracy theories, the pundits would be much better served by looking into the effects of authoritarianism, a debased and sensationalist media and the near total absence of political space on the political consciousness of the masses.
There is more to it. Someone once said (was it Woody Allen?) that paranoia is greatly heightened awareness. The joke is not without insight. While conspiracy theories of the sort above may be utter nonsense when judged on the facts, they are far more erudite if viewed as a reflection of the truth. After all, in both the natural and social worlds the appearance of things/phenomena is rarely, if ever, an accurate expression of their true nature. Take my barber’s suggestion that Sharon and Bin Laden went to the same school. As a fact it is patently absurd. As a metaphor underlining the similarities between the two thugs it could not be more apt.
No less interesting is the taxi driver’s Saddam/ Bin Laden theory. Indeed a fairly substantial section of the “Egyptian street” (regardless of ideas on the whereabouts of the two miscreants) has in the past few weeks come to subscribe to the notion that both Bin Laden and Saddam are American agents. (I have since christened this line of thinking the Bulaq Al-Dakrur School in reference to a sprawling — literally on the wrong side of the tracks — slum district in Giza, where one of the theory’s most zealous proponents resides.)
Factually, the Bulaq Al-Dakrur School’s conjectures are laughable. As metaphor, however, they reveal a whole host of truths. One need not subscribe to conspiracy theories of any sort to recognise that Saddam and Bin Laden have been heaven-sent in so far as the US’s post-Soviet imperial ambitions are concerned. There is incontrovertible factual evidence that the neo-cons had been praying for a Pearl Harbour and clamouring for Iraqi blood and oil well before 9/11, indeed, well before Jeb Bush and the Supreme Court delivered the White House into their busy and eager hands. Bin Laden provided them with their Pearl Harbour (or is it Reichstag fire?); Saddam, sitting on a sea of oil, became a uniquely abominable target of repugnance in addition to state-of-the-art missiles.
What I find most telling about this particular conspiracy theory, however, is the “street’s” profound rejection of the two sets of blood-thirsty tyrants, local and foreign, Muslim, Jew and (born-again) Christian. Since they are equally loathed they must be in cahoots.
What a great many pundits, on this side of the Atlantic as well as the other, fail to understand is that the Arab masses’ profound sense of national humiliation at Western imperialist hands is inevitably interwoven with their status as disenfranchised and abused citizens in their own countries. Their anger at one set of oppressors is pretty much of the same order as that directed at the other set.
Now, let me suggest a conspiracy theory of my own: the neo-cons are a Trotskyite group whose ambition is to foment world revolution. Like most conspiracy theories there is a factual grain at the core of this one. We know that a few of the neo-con ideologues (notably the Washington Institute’s Patrick Clawson, he of Navigating Through Turbulence fame) are reconstructed Trots. But are they? Reconstructed, that is. What if, having been disheartened by the steep decline in revolutionary fervour following the fall of Saigon in ’75, some especially militant Trots figured that the international working class movement needed to be nudged out of its complacency? What if they then set about infiltrating intelligence and administration-connected think-tanks, as well as searching for a likely point of entry into the White House? Was Junior, a wealthy wastrel from a patrician, politically and corporately-well-connected American family heaven sent, or one of several possibles? Was he, sometime during his lost years, recruited to the cause, or merely played for a fool as others exploited his well known naéveté?
Look at the results. In less than two years in office the neo-cons have succeeded in splitting the Western alliance as never before; Russia and China have been propelled out of their decade-long slavishness; and most significant of all, a new, uniquely internationalist anti-capitalist/anti- imperialist movement has been galvanised into action — as evidenced in the 15 February anti- war demonstrations, the likes of which the world had not seen before. And the Arab street seems to have been awakened out of its long slumber; America’s “friends” in the Arab world have not been as discredited, shaken and destabilised in over a quarter of a century.
The “enduring”, permanent war on terror pursued by the neo-cons with arrogant vigour, is it not evocative of grand old Lev Bronstein’s “permanent revolution”? Is permanent imperialist war designed to act, in well established Marxist idiom, as the midwife of permanent revolution?
It’s all nonsense, of course, but fun all the same. There is a point to the frivolity, however. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq may indeed prove to have put the Arabs on the road to democracy, not by force of American example but in opposition to it. There are clear signs that the anger triggered by the new and unprecedented level of Arab national humiliation is increasingly taking an inward bent. A democratic awakening of the Arab masses may well be at hand; the invasion of Iraq will not launch a new American century but will prove to have been the seal on the first, and last, one.
Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.