Sarbaland Shah is a young educated man who works for an IT firm in Lahore. Despite his education and impressive expertise in information technology, he believes strongly that America is behind all the ills of Muslims all over the world. For him, Osama Bin Laden (OBL) is a hero who can never be captured or killed by the United States or anyone else. This belief has also been strengthened by his Pir who thinks OBL possesses an unbelievable power, real or spiritual, to overcome his enemies.
The news that OBL has been killed in an attack in Abbottabad by American paratroopers is totally unbelievable, devastating and shocking for him and his friends. He is very confused about the new situation as he strongly believes that OBL is indestructible. He decides to consult his Pir and discusses his confusion with him in detail.
Finally, he sees light at the end of the tunnel and comes back consoled and satisfied with Pir Saheb’s explanation that OBL is alive and the United States created this hoax only to demoralize Muslims. According to Pir Saheb, OBL is still out there in the mountains planning to fight his enemy.
This scenario is a typical example of how conspiracy theories are developed and reinforced. Sarbaland, an educated young man, despite his modern outlook, had to deal with the following two kinds of beliefs:
1. OBL is an indestructible, supernatural hero who cannot be defeated by any superpower.
2. New media reports that OBL has been killed by American armed forces in Abbottabad.
These two pieces of information, however, are contradictory to each other and create a great deal of psychological discomfort and distress for Sarbaland. To resolve the issue he tries to find a solution and with the help of a ‘wise man’ he finally reached the conclusion that the news of his superhero’s death is totally false and is part of an American conspiracy to demonstrate that they are the ultimate power all over the world.
Known psychologist, Leon Festinger (1957) would have explained this situation with his theory, popularly known as the theory of “Cognitive Dissonance.” To him when people have a set of two contradictory beliefs which he calls cognition, and there is a dissonance or contradiction between the two, they try to remove the contradiction by doing one of the following three things:
-Creating a new belief which is not contradictory to their existing belief
-Changing one of the two existing beliefs, or
-Diminishing the importance of the issue instead of changing the belief itself.
As an alternate, Sarbaland might have accepted the fact that OBL has been killed by American armed forces as he was a normal human being. As a second option he might have ignored the whole issue by diminishing its importance and believing that it is altogether irrelevant and insignificant whether OBL is dead or alive. He might have proved that the overall struggle against American forces is still alive and well even without OBL. But under the influence of his Pir, he decided to go for the first option accepting the notion that OBL was alive, not dead.
In addition to this psychological process, there are some other sociopolitical conditions for theories to exist and grow into a widely believed conspiracy theory:
1. An identifiable group of people who strongly distrust an identifiable institution, person, government or nation.
2. A very significant issue or event surrounded by mysterious or unexplainable circumstances.
3. A strong historically based distrust behind the conspiracy theory which is further enhanced correctly or incorrectly.
With these micro and macro level conditions, people create their own visionary world to support their preconceived notions and an astounding belief system denying all existing facts, realities and evidence.
Probably that’s why for a large population within the U.S. and in Muslim countries who does not trust the U.S. establishment, 9/11 was a perfect incident to develop a profound conspiracy theory. To them, World Trade Center was destroyed by an inside explosion, not as a result of external attacks.
While this lack of trust on the American establishment is not imaginary, the conspiracy theory is. It is based on military interventions, political conspiracies and an unconditional support to dictators and military regimes against their masses.
As it looks, human mind is an amazing thing. Right or wrong, it has a miraculous ability to create its own paradise and live within its imperishable boundaries comfortably!
(From Viewpoint Online)
- Believing the impossible and conspiracy theories (eurekalert.org)
- Conspiracy theories: the politically disaffected and the culturally suspicious… (knockandtalk.wordpress.com)