One of the most alarming features of Arab responses to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is a persistent pattern of neurotic denial in the form of conspiracy theories and other escapist fantasies. But running away from the truth will only complicate the ability of Arab states and societies to comprehend where the IS came from, how it has unexpectedly managed to surge into so much power so quickly, and how it can be effectively countered.
One of the most persistent and widespread delusions is that the IS did not, in fact, emerge from Sunni Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria over the course of the wars there in the past decade. Instead, it is increasingly asserted, the IS is a creature of, and was established by, intelligence services such as the CIA or the Israeli Mossad. An extraordinarily large number of Arabs, Muslims and others appear to have taken refuge in these conspiracy theories. Call it Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.
The most outlandish version circulating online holds that IS leader and "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, in fact, a Jewish actor named Elliot Shimon, or some such plausibly-Jewish name. Shimon, it's laughably alleged, was trained for a year by the Mossad in various skills, including theology and rhetoric.
Even some who don't embrace this detailed self-parody are still clinging to the notion that Baghdadi and the IS are, somehow, foreign impositions on the Sunni Muslim social and political landscape of Syria and Iraq. An astounding number and range of Arabs, in my own experience in recent weeks, embrace some version of a conspiracy theory holding that the IS and Baghdadi are not what they seem and are, in fact, the creations of Western or Israeli intelligence services.
In a way, this thinking reflects a positive impulse. There is a desire to reject Baghdadi and the IS, and an unwillingness to accept the fact that such vicious malefactors could actually have been organically produced by elements of Syrian and Iraqi society under extreme pressures. Like Arab and Muslim 9/11 conspiracy theories, it begins with a disavowal – "that can't have had anything to do with any of us" – that, rather than producing serious introspection, gives way to denial through conspiracy theory and a terror of the truth.
And, indeed, the truth is terrifying. For the reality is that Baghdadi and the IS are not the products of the CIA or the Mossad or anything like that. They have arisen, and gained power, in the heart of the Sunni Arab world. Accordingly, they cannot but be recognized as reflecting a profound crisis in the culture and hierarchies of moral and religious values that have taken root in parts of those societies.
Of course it's true that Baghdadi and the IS would not have arisen without the ill-conceived and disastrous American invasion and occupation of Iraq a decade ago. And they would not have swept to power but for the concerted policies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Assad relies on the IS to defeating the Syrian opposition by making the IS appear more horrifying than himself, and has promoted their role in the opposition at every stage. And Maliki's outrageously sectarian and abusive policies created the space for the IS to operate successfully within Sunni communities in Iraq that otherwise probably wouldn't have existed.
And yet, while one cannot hold the entirety of Iraqi or Syrian Sunnis responsible for the IS and its depredations, one cannot exculpate these communities entirely either. Without significant public support the IS would not have been able to seize and control the amount of territory it has acquired in recent months. If its message did not resonate, the group would not have grown so quickly. At the very least, Sunni tribes and other Sunni militias have stood aside while the IS has seized victory after victory in Iraq. Whatever they thought they were accomplishing by either supporting or not opposing the IS, they must bear some responsibility for its outrageous conduct.
Christians have been forced out of newly-acquired IS territories, apparently without any pushback from their Sunni Muslim neighbors. In some cases, there appears to be popular collaboration in this cleansing. Even worse, the murderous assault on the Yazidi minority has also gone apparently unopposed on the ground.
Is it expecting too much to wonder why people are not standing up to these savages when they have the guns and many others don't? Perhaps. But there don't appear to be any real signs that these communities are stricken, or even upset, by IS abuses against their neighbors.
As long as there is a way of blaming others – whether it's the CIA and/or the Mossad via conspiracy theories, or implicating the United States, Iran, Assad or Maliki by emphasizing the context of the IS rise, rather than the rise itself – the true meaning and impact of the Islamic State will be denied. In fact, there is no way to look at the fact of the surge of these extremists without seriously questioning the cultural and moral health of the Arab Sunni Muslim communities in which they are operating and which they claim to represent. It cannot but be a manifestation of the most profound crisis.
And this spiritual and moral crisis cannot be analyzed until it is accepted as fact, and cannot be addressed until it is analyzed. So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.
And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.
Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog