When I was a young man the World Government Conspiracy was quite popular (or should I say unpopular?) in the conservative church circles in which I moved for a while. The basic idea was that various powerful forces were working in secret to create a single world government, perhaps with the United Nations as its initial vehicle. This government would appear benign and desirable initially, but once firmly established would show its true Satanic character in fulfillment of various prophecies in the Book of Revelation.
The thing about a good conspiracy theory is that it is pretty much impervious to criticism. Of course conspirators will lie, cover their tracks and create false records. Hence, those producing evidence which discredits the conspiracy theory are either part of the conspiracy, or duped by it. Once this mindset has taken hold, all argument is futile. Even the clumsiest and most outlandish conspiracy theories are protected behind this wall of circularity.
I haven't heard anybody advocate the World Government Conspiracy for years, but lately my Facebook feed has been infused with a steady drip of articles and memes about the Islamic Conspiracy. This particular conspiracy has quite a bit on common with its older cousin. Islamic forces (vaguely defined) are plotting world domination. They wish to impose Sharia Law on the whole globe, by force if necessary. Where it is feasible to do so they will impose their will by force (as in Saudi Arabia, or Iraq and Syria), but where it is not feasible they will do so by infiltration, getting a foothold in Western countries through immigration (sometimes as "refugees") and having large families to mavouvre themselves into a position of demographic dominance.
In the vanguard of those promoting the notion of this conspiracy are neo-fascist groups such as Reclaim Australia and its counterparts around the globe. However I'm also hearing these ideas from people who I know are definitely not neo-fascists, including many conservative Christians.
While many aspects of the Islamic conspiracy are less detailed and less well-thought-out than the World Government Conspiracy, it far surpasses the older theory in its capacity to insulate itself from criticism. This self-protective structure is founded in a rather peculiar interpretation of the Islamic concept of taqiyya.
The anti-Islamic website Religion of Peace provides the following description of taqiyya, which it translates as "lying".
There are two forms of lying to non-believers that are permitted under certain circumstances, taqiyya (saying things that aren't true) and kitman (lying by omission). These circumstances are typically those that advance the cause Islam - in some cases by gaining the trust of non-believers in order to draw out their vulnerability and defeat them....
Leaders in the Arab world routinely say one thing to English-speaking audiences and then something entirely different to their own people in Arabic. Yassir Arafat was famous for telling Western newspapers about his desire for peace with Israel, then turning right around and whipping Palestinians into a hateful and violent frenzy against Jews.
The 9/11 hijackers practiced deception by going into bars and drinking alcohol, thus throwing off potential suspicion that they were fundamentalists plotting jihad. This effort worked so well, in fact, that even weeks after 9/11, John Walsh, the host of a popular American television show, said that their bar trips were evidence of 'hypocrisy.'
These are just some extracts to give you the flavour. They cite a number of verses from the Quran and the hadith to back their case. Other anti-Islam sites provide similar arguments, and there is no shortage of such sites out there.
The upshot of this description is that Muslims cannot be trusted. Even if you make friends with a Muslim or work with one and they seem nice and "normal", chances are that they are simply practicing taqiyya, lulling you into a false sense of security, waiting to strike when the moment is right and either make you a willing convert or force you to bow to their will.
There is a lot wrong with this argument. For a start, it is not clear that Yasser Arafat, never mind the 9/11 conspirators, are models of Islamic behaviour. It may well be that Arafat practiced deception - plenty of politicians of all religious persuasions have done the same. It may also be that the 9/11 conspirators deliberately concealed their Islamic fantaticism in order to throw police off the scent - after all, they were desperate criminals. On the other hand it could be as Robert Pape suggests, that they simply weren't that devout and were motivated by nationalism not religion.
If we turn to Islamic sources we find the term understood very differently. We learn for instance that the idea is mostly argued by Shiite Muslims rather than the majority Sunnis. The Shiite online library Al-Islam.org describes it in the following way.
The word "al-Taqiyya” literally means: "Concealing or disguising one’s beliefs, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions, and/or strategies at a time of eminent danger, whether now or later in time, to save oneself from physical and/or mental injury.” A one-word translation would be "Dissimulation".
…a better, and more accurate definition of "al-Taqiyya”is "diplomacy.” The true spirit of "al- Taqiyya”is better embodied in the single word "diplomacy” because it encompasses a comprehensive spectrum of behaviors that serve to further the vested interests of all parties involved.
It goes on to provide a lengthy exposition, citing various seminal Sunni and Shiite teachers, the upshot of which is that the purpose of al-taqiyya is self-preservation - such dissimulation is to be used in the face of persecution, at which point it is permissable for believers to conceal their belief and even commit forbidden acts in order to preserve life and limb.
A kind of footnote at the end of the article responds very dismissively to a Wahabbist comment suggesting the wider meaning. (Wahabbism, remember, is the interpretation of Islam preferred by Al Qaida, IS and Saudi regime). Al-Islam's author suggests that this is a fringe interpretation based on an ignorance of Islamic tradition and scholarship.
The Washington Post quotes Khaled Abu El Fadl, a professor of law at Harvard and leading authority on Islamic law.
“Yes, it is permissible to hide the fact you are Muslim” if a person is under threat, “as long as it does not involve hurting another person,” Abou El Fadl said. “But there is no concept that would encourage a Muslim to lie to pursue a goal. That is a complete invention. Any Muslim is raised on the idea that lying is a sin.”
Neutral sources echo this more narrow interpretation. For instance the article on Rational Wiki says this:
This concept has been seized upon by bigots to suggest that all Muslims are constantly focused on deceiving their neighbors to appear more likable, and then once they've lured you into a false sense of security - bam - the old fork in the eye.
The truth of the matter is that the standard for employing taqiyya is particularly high. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition when Muslims (along with Jews) were tortured by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, it would have been permissible for a Muslim to claim to convert to Christianity to avoid torture and death for himself and his family, while continuing to practice his faith in secret.
Even such a sober and neutral source as the Oxford Dictionary of Islam expresses the same view. It defines taqiyya as follows.
Precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution. Stressed by Shii Muslims, who have been subject to periodic persecution by the Sunni majority.
I could go on but I don't want to labour the point. The interpretation of taqiyya advanced by anti-Islamic campaigners like Religion of Peace is at odds with the vast majority of Islamic teaching on the subject. Islamic scholars are clear that deception is permissible in extreme situations where there is a direct threat to the life of the believer. This is why it emerged first in Shia Islam, whose followers have been much more subject to persecution across their history than the majority Sunni faith.
This is not to say that no Islamic person will lie to you, or even that no Islamic preacher will advocate the more expansive interpretation of taqiyya. What I'm pointing out, though, is that if this is taught it is a minority position which does not reflect the mainstream of Islam. It is a problem within Islam rather than a problem with Islam, just as white supremacism or the Children of God are problems within Christianity but do not reflect the view of the majority of Christians.
The problem is, I can argue this all I like. Those who are convinced that there is an Islamic conspiracy will simply say that I have been duped, that Al-Islam and Abu El Fadl have practiced a clever piece of taqiyya and that people like the Washington Post journalist and even the Oxford Dictionary have been taken in. Conspiracy theories are not rational, they are expressions of our deep fears, and we cannot argue them away.
However, their existence makes the goodwill of the rest of us all the more important. Just as it is important to show that terrorism and deception are not the norm in Islamic communities, it is important to show that bigotry is not the norm in secular Western societies, or in Christian churches. Acts of friendship and humanity can help to bring down the wall, or at least lower it. Do you have Muslim neighbours? Say hello. They will probably say hello back. They will not mean anything sinister by it. They are just people, like the rest of us.