January 21, 2016

External forces: conspiracy theories and reality

Ercan Sancak*

Political rulers rely on allegations of conspiracies for manipulative purposes in many countries in the world. However, they do not discuss how the conspiracy mechanism works. What really matters is to make people believe in these allegations.

A conspiracy theory can be defined as unsubstantiated allegations based on vague plans to manipulate society. A conspiracy, on the other hand, is based on at least some concrete evidence and thus closer to reality. The conspirators are accused of committing evil acts by relying on their secret ties and connections, and of disrupting social, political and economic harmony and cohesion through the support of external forces.

What are the attributes of those who generate conspiracy theories and their methods?

According to the findings of scholarly studies (such as those by Patrick Leman), paranoid and cynical people tend to create conspiracy theories. The studies further suggest that those who do so in the political realm develop nationalist and religious discourses in order to ensure that their conspiracy allegations are embraced. Those who create conspiracy theories present unsubstantiated and untrue scenarios to people as if they are real. Because of the lack of proper knowledge, a substantial portion of people tend to believe these allegations. They become even more likely to believe these theories if they are generated by leading public figures.

The research done so far reveals that in times of economic, political and social crises, the number of conspiracy theories increases. Political leaders who want to exploit the crisis cause confusion by manipulating social anxiety. The methods they rely on include vague words, notions and remarks that they know nothing about. For instance, people have no idea what interest lobby, parallel state, supreme mind -- all of which were exploited by political rulers to manipulate the popular perception in the aftermath of the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption investigation -- mean.

Conspiracy theories are used for political and social purposes. Historically speaking, those who generate conspiracy theories rely on methods of scapegoating and fabricating imaginary enemies.

What is the purpose of conspiracy theories?

The main goal of the political administration is to attract the support of the people by relying on the discourse it develops. If it is about an internal crisis, the administration targets a specific group of people to make them scapegoats and then relies on political violence to ensure that people do not support the oppressed group. Another goal of conspiracy theories is to place emphasis on alleged external enemies and imaginary enemies so that domestic problems remain unresolved or unattended. A tendency toward conspiracy theories is greater in societies with higher illiteracy rates where leaders attempt to convince citizens of the validity of their conspiracies using nationalistic, chauvinistic and religious discourses. In the aftermath of Dec. 17 a number of conspiracy theories were fabricated to use the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, as a scapegoat. People became confused in the face of the asymmetric information bombardment.

In terms of their political goal, the political administration in Turkey carries out provocative assaults against the Gülen movement to undermine its popularity and image. The government and the administration rely on state sources and its extensions in the media and civil society sectors to continue this campaign. The Gülen movement, on the other hand, responds to these assaults using legal means and avoids violent confrontation. In this way it has contributed to political science literature.

Do the conspiracy theories in Turkey have a scientific and rational basis?

Every country has enemies and friends. The duty of the governments is to make policies for the safety, security, betterment and welfare of the country, and to observe the interests and priorities of the people and citizens. But the Turkish government frequently raises the following discourse during political rallies and in the media: “We have strong enemies who are jealous of us. They want to undermine our works, including the construction of roads and airports. They are uncomfortable with the rise of the country and they are doing their best to ensure that we do not make progress.”

There are a few problems with this discourse. First, there is no significant economic growth and development. The rate of unemployment, the most important indicator of real economic performance, is 11 percent. Turkey was ranked 53rd in 2013 and 64th in 2014 on the World Corruption Perceptions Index. The economic growth rate has been below 3.5 percent since 2011. So who is responsible for this -- external forces and enemies, or government policies? Secondly, the argument that external forces are against our government is inconsistent because jealousy of one's enemy is only natural. What is not natural is a political administration viewing its own citizens as enemies. Thirdly, if there really are enemies working against our country, should they not be exposed and identified for the public? Fabricating imaginary enemies only serves to harm international relations.

The greatest danger to national unity and security is polarization and separatism. It is the discourse of the political administration that has poisoned social brotherhood and solidarity since 2013. A number of individuals and groups were declared criminals without relying on any legal evidence. Some social groups and circles were humiliated by being called assassins, members of a so-called “parallel state,” viruses, agents, traitors and Alevi -- apparently an insult in Turkey. Fabricating lies against individuals and groups, and raising unsubstantiated allegations against them is nothing but a conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories or conspiracy

It is wrong to look for conspiracies all the time, but it is a fact that political administrations fabricate conspiracies to maximize votes. The conspirators may sometimes be successful and effectively deal with their opponents.

It is possible to argue that conspiracies have surrounded three incidents in the recent past in Turkey: the Mavi Marmara incident (a deadly raid of the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010 that left eight Turks and a Turkish-American dead), the allegation that Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab trapped four of Turkey's ministers and, finally, around the recent Suruç massacre in which 32 lives were lost in Şanlıurfa in July. Turkey came to the edge of war after the Mavi Marmara incident and the fallout seriously undermined Turkey's image. In the Dec. 17 investigation it was argued that the people who committed illegal acts fell into the traps of conspirators. While those who allegedly committed crimes should have been prosecuted, those who initiated the investigation were placed under arrest and detention.

In addition, whether or not the state fulfilled its responsibility to protect its people in the first two cases remains in dispute. It is also possible to argue that there was a conspiracy leading to the Suruç massacre because this was a provocative attack with political goals. In the end, presenting a conspiracy theory as if it is a fact without offering substantial evidence is a grave error. It is an act of ignorance to believe what is being presented in the conspiracy in the absence of coherent evidence. In addition, generating conspiracy theories causes polarization and enmity among the people. This threatens the economic security of the country and negatively affects the betterment of society. The duty of the political administration is not to generate conspiracy theories; its mission is to identify and resolve the provocative tendencies that are obviously conspiracies and to protect the people against these conspiracies.

*Associate Professor Erhan Sancak is the director of the Center for Legal, Ethical and Political Studies (HESA).

Published on Today's Zaman, 12 August 2015, Wednesday