A conspiratorial plank in the eye

This column was published by the UPI Religion and Spirituality Forum on August 14, 2006

On June 22, The Pew Global Attitudes Project published the results of an extensive study called The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other. One of the poll’s findings, which the study’s authors called “striking,” is that significant portions of the Muslim world believe the Bush Administration, the government of Israel, or both, conspired to carry out the September 11 attacks.

A few commentators, including Daniel Pipes have suggested that this proclivity to believe outlandish conspiracy theories is evidence of how different are the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, but the results of another study conducted in July, suggest that a tendency to lend credence to bizarre beliefs about what happened on September 11 is something that the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have in common.

The Scripps Howard/Ohio University Poll found that 36 percent of American adults believe the attacks of September 11 were an “inside job,” with the United States either planning or doing nothing to stop the attacks in order to find an excuse for war in the Middle East.

It also is true that in September of 2003 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein somehow was involved in the terrorist attacks on America. By February of 2005, sometime after the press debunked and the President disavowed all links between Iraq and Al Q’aida, a Harris Poll found that 47 percent of Americans continued to believe that 9/11 was an Iraqi attack on American soil.

There’s no way to get an exact number from separately published polls, but it seems reasonable to assume that if a third of Americans believe the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy of the American government and nearly a half of us believe they were an Iraqi conspiracy, then a lot of Americans have beliefs about that horrible day that are disconnected from reality. It is safe to assume that the percentage of Americans subscribing to conspiracy theories about September 11 is probably similar to the percentage of conspiracy believers on the Arab street.

The Muslim world’s conspiracy theories about 9/11 tend to embrace nefarious plots involving Israel and the United States. The sentiments are dangerously anti-Western and heinously anti-Semitic, but it’s hard to argue that American conspiracy theories have any kind of moral advantage.

The most popular American conspiracy theory, the one suggesting that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime was involved in the 9/11 attacks, helped to inspire popular support for the war in Iraq. It has been used to justify both the slaughter of tens of thousands of unoffending Iraqi civilians and the emotional and spiritual scarring of a generation of American military personnel.

Nearly five years hence, there is much about the attacks of September 11, 2001 that continues to boggle the mind. It remains too terrible to believe that humans are capable of such evil, or that so small a band of brothers armed with box cutters and determination could alter the course of human events. And so we engage the fancies of our paranoia in a quest for palatable alternatives to historical fact.

Jesus once asked his followers to be concerned with the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our neighbors’ eye. It is a lesson the non-Muslim West would do well to observe as we look at the Muslim world. There is nothing peculiar about the Muslim world which causes its citizens to believe conspiracy theories about 9/11. Americans share this problem. My hope is that all of us who are religious will engage our faith traditions in ways that enable us to shun the dangerous folly of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in reality.

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