By Roger BerkowitzConspiracies are everywhere. From the President’s birthplace to U.S. involvement in 9/11, conspiracy theorists rule the airwaves. It is easy to mock those who purvey false certainties, but that should not stop us from taking them seriously. When people feel threatened and uneasy, in times of spiritual homelessness and economic dislocation, there is a deeply human need for certainty. In other words, conspiracies satisfy a longing for a consistent and coherent world, one that makes sense and feels like home.The most recent conspiracy theory making the rounds has now attracted the support of Michelle Bachmann and four other members of Congress. You may have heard that these Representatives in June sent letters to multiple federal agencies asking for an investigation of the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on U.S. policy. The letter named names and called out the U.S. Army as well as Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a July radio interview, Michelle Bachmann, elaborated:
“It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . It appears that there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency.”
To most, these conspiratorial fantasies were something to laugh at or to use for political points. But that misses the bipartisan and widespread embrace of conspiratorial thinking across the country.In a recent essay in the Daily Beast, Jonathan Kay locates the source of the latest conspiracy in the person of one Frank Gaffney, the Founder and President of the American Center for Security Policy. Gaffney is a former cold warrior and was deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces and arms control policy under Ronald Reagan. Since 9/11, he has replaced his Cold War instincts with a new obsession. In Kay’s words, Gaffney is on “the hunt for Muslim fifth columnists in Washington’s halls of power.”In a twist too ironic to be believed, it turns out Gaffney’s conspiratorial antennae were first aroused by the romantic habits of his former roommate, Grover Norquist. It seems that around the time Norquist and Gaffney were bunking together in DC, the future president of Americans for Tax Reform married Samah Alrayyes, a muslim woman who was then working for USAID. For Gaffney this betrayal was too much, and he apparently has become convinced that Norquist is a closet Muslim who is, intentionally or not, betraying the United States to its Muslim foes. As Kay reports, Alrayyes
pops up repeatedly in Gaffney’s anti-sharia mythology, and he seems to imagine her as a sort of Rasputin figure within Washington’s conservative establishment, turning its members into Islamists one by one through her husband’s influence.
No one has written so factually and perceptively about the present American mania for conspiracies as the Canadian Jonathan Kay. Kay’s book Amongst the Truthers, used the highly educated and professional members of the “truther” movement—those who believe that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks—to explore the bipartisan realm of conspiracy movements in the U.S. Kay is continuing his investigations, which brought him to attend the Sharia Awareness Action Network conference in Tennessee earlier this year, where Gaffney was a key speaker.Kay rightly puts Gaffney, Bachmann, and their co-conspirators in their places. More importantly, he also goes a long way to trying to understand their obsessions. He writes:
Gaffney’s performance seemed like something out of the McCarthy era—and he himself seemed to embrace the historical comparison. Like many speakers at the conference, he is a middle-aged man with strong memories of the Cold War. While critics of the anti-sharia movement are quick to brand these figures as Islamophobes, my own take is that they also suffer from a strong dose of Warsaw Pact-era nostalgia—and seek to reclaim the moral certainty that characterized an era in which the world could be divided clearly between good and evil.
The rise of conspiratorial thinking is not simply an accidental appendage of the internet age—although the internet undoubtedly aids the dissemination and power of conspiratorial belief. Conspiracies are rampant today in large part because there is a demand for simple, clear, and escapist explanations for the serious challenges we face. Conspiracies are therefore part and parcel of the search for consistent narratives that also lie behind the factionalization of political discourse. We would much prefer to speak into an echo chamber of our thoughts and opinions like our own than to risk speaking with those with whom we meaningfully disagree. It is easy to laugh at or disdain conspiracy theorists. It is much more difficult to see their need for consistency in our own choices of what to read and watch.