By Irfan Husain
EVERY time there’s a manmade or natural global crisis, thousands of people pop out of the woodwork to claim that it was caused by dark, inimical forces.
For example, if you type “9/11 conspiracy theories” into Google, you will get over four million results. It seems that many have little to do but cook up bizarre explanations for obvious events.
My favourite 9/11 conspiracy theory is the one recounted by a highly educated and well-travelled Sri Lankan friend who claimed that the Japanese were behind the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. “Why the Japanese?” I asked, slightly bemused. “To avenge themselves for the atomic bombs dropped by the Americans on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.”
Another jaw-dropping claim was made at a dinner party in London soon after the 2004 tsumani. As a dozen guests expressed their sorrow over the lives lost in many Asian countries, one person I had never met said loudly: “I hope you don’t believe the tsunami was a natural event!”
He went on to educate us about an American experiment to control the weather by exploding nuclear devices off the Indonesian coast. These blasts caused tectonic plates to be displaced, thereby triggering the killer tsunami.
In most such events, our departure from the true path laid down by our Maker is invoked as a reason. After the tsunami struck, clerics across the Muslim world talked about the “adultery, drinking and fornication” that went on to celebrate Christmas to explain the wrath of God.
And now, we have the Covid-19 pandemic that is roiling economies and societies across the world. Social distancing and lockdowns have brought life to a standstill.
Why are we so hooked on conspiracy theories and predictions?
As it erupted out of Wuhan in China, the conspiracies were relatively simple: bats from a certain cave in Hubei province had been stored close to pangolins (or civets) in a food market in Wuhan. The viruses from these two animals made their way into the respiratory system of a human customer. And very soon, his breath was inhaled by others, and the combined viruses formed a lethal cocktail that came to be known as a novel coronavirus.
Not being a biologist, I may have got some of this wrong, but this is the gist of what I have read. However, the cause and effect of the disease was not given much religious weight in the beginning. Initially, geopolitics was used to explain its origins: the Americans were quick to blame the Chinese for not reporting its emergence in time. Donald Trump was openly racist in calling it the ‘Chinese virus’. As the death toll in the US mounted, the Republicans accused the Chinese government of using the disease to weaken the American economy.
The Chinese retaliated by accusing the Americans of manufacturing Covid-19, and planting it in Wuhan when 280 American soldiers visited the city for military games last October. Trump hit back by claiming that the Chinese had a secret laboratory for military-grade virology research in Wuhan.
In the UK, a handful of cranks have sabotaged around 20 masts carrying the new 5G cell phone signal. They claim that this bandwidth causes coronavirus to infect human beings. Dozens of engineers have also been attacked in this mindless campaign.
To this day, many believe that Nasa’s claim to have landed 12 astronauts on the moon in six lunar missions between 1969 and 1972 was faked. According to them, photos and films were edited and doctored to make it appear that the Americans had won the space race. Muslim clerics are at the forefront of this particular theory.
Then, of course, there is the Flat Earth Society that disputes the evidence of our planet being a sphere. So what drives normal people to adopt such bizarre positions on established facts?
Whenever I have got into a discussion with one of them in an effort to restore sanity, I get some snippet from the internet thrown at me. But it is Nostradamus who is the father of conspiracy theories. This 16th-century doctor and astronomer made a number of predictions, and many of them are cited today to underpin contemporary interpretations of events. He is even supposed to have predicted Donald Trump’s election, something most modern pollsters and pundits got terribly wrong. The bad news is that he also foresaw Trump’s re-election.
The problem with attempting to interpret Nostradamus’s predictions is that they are cast in extremely vague language. Thus, when he writes “The eagle flew from the west to the east”, this is taken as Hitler’s initially victorious march against the Soviet Union.
Why are we so hooked on conspiracy theories and predictions? The reality is that the unvarnished truth is pretty boring, so we seek to cast it into a more attractive version. When we read astrological prophecies written by soothsayers, we are trying to put a bit of colour into our own drab lives.