Conspiracy theories and
the Persian Mind
By Ahmad Ashraf
Conspiracy theories in Persia are a complex set of beliefs attributing the course of Persian history and politics to the machinations of hostile foreign powers and secret organizations.
In contemporary social psychology such theories are defined as elaborate and internally consistent systems of "collective delusions," often tenaciously held and extremely difficult to refute.
Many conspiracy theories are based on a simple dualism in which the world is viewed as divided between good and evil forces with the latter determining the course of history. Various failures and disasters, for example, defeats in war, revolutions, and general backwardness can thus be blamed on powerful enemies.
Conspiracy theories often serve an important social function, helping to assuage certain kinds of anxiety among group members but also often limiting or hindering their capacity to respond effectively to external and internal social and political challenges.
Particularly since the beginning of the 20th century, Persians from all walks of life and all ideological orientations have relied on conspiracy theories as a basic mode of understanding politics and history.
The fact that the great powers have in fact intervened covertly in Persian affairs has led ordinary people, political leaders, even the rulers themselves to interpret their history in terms of elaborate and devious conspiracies.
The acceptance of such theories has in itself influenced the course of modern Persian history, for it has engendered a sense of helplessness in dealing with the rumored activities of foreign conspirators.
Conspiracy theories in modern Persia can generally be divided into two categories: those focused on supposed plots by Western colonial powers and those focused on satanic forces believed to have been active against Persia from antiquity to the present.
Conspiracy theories focused on colonial powers
The weakness of Persia under the last three Qajar shahs (1896-1924), coupled with such events as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, which had the support of Great Britain against Russian interests; the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, by which Russia and Great Britain divided Persia into zones of influence; the occupation of Persian territory by Great Britain, Russia, and Ottoman during World War I; the abortive 1919 Anglo-Persian agreement, by which Persia was to become a kind of semiprotectorate; and the British-backed coup d'etat of 1921, which led to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty, encouraged the development of conspiracy theories focused on foreign powers.
During most of this period, foreign embassies openly intervened in Persian affairs through individual political notables, tribal khans, wealthy merchants, and members of the olama (clergy).
For their part, these Persian notables found foreign patronage extremely tempting; it was easy to overcome rivals and to mislead timid compatriots with the air of being 'in the know.' Such notables, hinting at knowledge of the real intentions of the foreigners, fostered a general sense that Persian affairs were directed by hidden plotters in the embassies.
Conspiratorial schemata focused on the British
Although there have been conspiracy theories implicating all the Western powers that have competed in Persia, those involving the British have been most popular among members of the ruling and middle classes born before World War II.
The basic premise is that the British have controlled the course of modern world history, including all major events in Persia from the Russo-Persian wars of the early 19th century to the Revolution of 1979.
The British are depicted as cold-blooded, foxy, and cunning (rubah-e makkar), able to "cut off the heads of their enemies even with cotton" -- that is, possessing nearly miraculous powers (siasat-e Engelis) to achieve their ends.
They are supposed to have duped and manipulated the "simple Russians" and the "naive Yankees." such notions were influenced by conspiracy theories abroad in France and Germany since the 18th century by students returning from Europe.
Russian, German, and Ottoman propaganda against the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries encouraged fears of secret British designs against Persia and the Islamic world as a whole.
Conspiracy theories focused on the C.I.A.
After the C.I.A. had engineered the 1953 coup that overthrew the Mosaddeq government, the dominant position of the United States in Persia began to be reflected in conspiracy theories.
The Persian elite of the post-Mosaddeq period, one American diplomat noted, belied in the myth of "American omnipotence." Imagining that prime ministers were chosen by the United States, "candidates or would-be candidates for prime minister come to advertise their assets and their availability."
It was widely believed that the shah's White Revolution and the land-reform program of the 1960s had been designed in detail by Americans, though in fact American officials had favored more moderate land reform.
Leftists and many others in the middle class believed that the reforms had been designed to undermine the feudal basis of British interests in Persia. Khomeini, among others, considered land reform part of an American plot to destroy Persian agriculture in order to create a market for surplus American produce and to ensure Persian dependence on food supplies from the United States.
Satanic theories of conspiracy
According to the satanic theories, the failure of Persia to attain its "natural" position of political, military, cultural, and religious superiority is the result of conspiracy by inimical global forces, variously "Hellenic westernism," Freemasonry, Zionism, the Bahai faith, and even the Shi'ite clergy.
Hellenic westernism. The uneasy relationship between Persia and and western powers from antiquity to the present has encouraged intellectuals like Ahmad Fardid, Zabih Behruz, and Hosayn Malek to adopt theories of conspiracy.
The term gharbzadegi ("plagued by the West" or "westoxication") was coined by Fardid, who claimed that Freemasons and Jews are engaged in a great conspiracy to "hellenize" the entire world.
The concept of "westoxication" appears to be derived from a recurring theme in Martin Heidegger's works, the "darkening of the world." The perceived decadence of the West had already begun, according to Fardid, with the development of Greek philosophy, in which human beings (vojud) were separated from the the unity of consciousness (delagahi) .
The humanistic belief that man is at the center of the universe has determined the Western ethos since the time of the Greek philosophers. Western man is immersed in technology and more concerned with himself than with his spiritual calling in the world.
This ethos is in conflict with the "spiritual ethos" of the East, but, on the other hand, the East has lost its cultural potency and is dominated by Western civilization. The liberal conception of a free society is useless in a world in which being and consciousness are no longer well integrated.
Fradid believed that the Constitutional Revolution in particular was tainted by Western Freemasonry and Judaism. His theories have been adopted by some intellectuals who claim that the policies of the current Islamic regime are manifestations of Eastern spirituality.
Conspiracy between the shi'ite olama and world powers
In the 1980s Shoja-al-Din Shafa, a former Persian deputy court minister for cultural affairs, developed another conspiracy theory, based on ideas in the deposed shah's book that a "strange amalgam" -- among the Shi'ite clergy, leftists, Western media, major oil companies, and the British and American governments -- had set out to destroy the rapidly developing nation of Persia.
Shafa suggested that "the emergence of the Shi'ite olama in the 10th century constitutes the greatest conspiracy in Persian history and perhaps the oldest conspiracy in world history." The purpose was to emasculate true Shi'ism by transforming it into the instrument of corrupt Shi'ite leaders.
Three "capital investments" ensured the loyalty of the olama. First, they received financial support from temporal authorities and bazaaris, a "sacred coalition" of the forces of tyranny (estebdad), exploitation (estesmar) and demagoguery (estehmar).
Second, they accepted the "Indian money" and other contributions from Great Britain in the late 19th century. Finally, in the 1970s a gigantic coalition of big oil companies and the intelligence agencies of the United States, Great Britain, the U.S.S.R., and Israel used the olama to mobilize the forces of the Islamic revolution in order to halt the development of Persia and to prevent its impending entry into the "northern club."
Conspiracies of the Freemasons, Bahais and Zionists
It is commonly believed in Persia that various elite groups are organized in secret lodges of Freemasons under the control of the British, who use them to advance their secret designs to control world affairs.
Groups accused of being under the thumb of the Freemasons include former courtiers, landowners, tribal chiefs, intellectuals, leading olama, wealthy merchants, contractors, influence peddlers, political bosses, and most politicians, including deputies to the Majles and cabinet members.
Belief in a conspiracy among the adherents of the Bahai faith is based on a forged document attributed to Prince Dimitri Dolgorukov (known in Persian as Kinyaz Dalguroki), the Russian minister to Persia in 1846-54.
It purports to a memoir in which the prince described how he created the Babi and Bahai faiths as a way of weakening Shi'ism and Persia as a whole. It was first circulated in Tehran in various forms in the late 1930s and has since been widely cited in Muslim polemics as evidence that the Bahais were controlled first by the Russians and later by the British or the Americans or both.
Those who believe in an international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world find their proof in the protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document originally forged by the czarist secret police but still widely accepted as authentic in the Middle East.
The Zionist conspiracy is thought to have supported the "despotic" rule of the shah; for example, soldiers who are supposed to have massacred "thousands" of innocent people on Black Friday (8 September 1978) are said to have been Israelis.
Some people have argued that Israel supported the Islamic revolution in order to weaken its only potential rival for domination in the region by replacing the shah with a "vulnerable and dependent Islamic regime."
The popularity of conspiracy theories among Persians arises from a combination of political, social, psychological, and cultural factors: frequent foreign interference during the period of semicolonialism in the early 20th century and great-power politics in the 1940s-80s; the legacy of deeply rooted pre-Islamic and Shi'ite cultural beliefs about satanic forces; and the effectiveness of such theories as a collective defense mechanism, particularly during periods of powerlessness, defeat, and political turmoil.
Certain deep-rooted aspects of the Persian cultural heritage, which seem to have no parallel in other Muslim societies, may also have contributed to the popularity of conspiracy theories. They include a dualistic world view, probably derived from pre-Islamic religious beliefs, in which good and evil powers were considered to be in conflict, with the latter directing the course of history.
The mythological character of traditional Persian historiography, which may reflect a particular receptivity to the mythological mode of thought; a propensity to poetic exaggeration (eghraq-e sha'erana) among the Persians at all social levels; and a long tradition of attributing miraculous deeds to the twelve Shi'ite imams are other probable contributing factors.
Although blaming others can help assuage anxiety about failures, ready acceptance of conspiracy theories has also proved to be highly dysfunctional; in modern Persia it has contributed to political malaise that has sometimes precluded rational responses to internal and external crises.