Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has a new admirer: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
After Trump said last week that President Barack Obama is “the founder of ISIS [the Islamic State],” the Lebanese militant leader quoted Trump as an authoritative source about the rise of the brutal rival jihadist group.
Addressing a rally in southern Lebanon on Saturday commemorating Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah said, “This an American presidential candidate who is saying this. What he says is based on facts and documents.”
Anyone who has spent time in the Middle East knows that its people are prone to conspiracy theories.
This analyst has heard from multiple Middle Easterners that the US government was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, that Jews had advance knowledge and so didn’t go to work at the World Trade Center that day and that President George W. Bush was seeking a pretext to invade Iraq and dominate the region.
Others believe that Americans were complicit in a failed July 15 coup in Turkey. Turkish media egged on by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have even charged that Henri Barkey, a respected academic of Turkish origin who runs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars — and was attending a conference on an island off Istanbul at the time of the coup — was involved.
While Turks demand the extradition of the alleged ringleader, a former Erdogan ally turned bitter rival named Fethullah Gulen who lives in rural Pennsylvania, it remains unclear exactly who planned the coup. Some Erdogan opponents have gone so far as to suggest that Erdogan did it to justify arresting thousands of Turks and firing more than 50,000 in a purge that appears to have as much to do with Erdogan’s desire to consolidate power as the pursuit of justice.
Rather than lampoon the Turks for reveling in conspiracy theories, however, Americans need to critically examine their own predilection for doing the same. Increasingly in this election year, political prejudices and paranoia are substituting for facts and reasoned analysis.
There are many who are putting forth such dangerous distortions, but the poster child for this kind of behavior is Trump.
The brash New Yorker began five years ago by openly questioning President Obama’s American citizenship, fueling the so-called birther movement. During the campaign, Trump suggested without proof that thousands of Muslim Americans celebrated in New Jersey after the Sept. 11 attacks. When the father of a Muslim American war hero criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention, a Trump supporter – with no pushback from the candidate —insinuated that Pakistani immigrant Khizr Khan was a member of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
After a public outcry greeted his contention that Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton founded ISIS, Trump pulled back but only slightly, and said that he was just being “sarcastic or maybe not that sarcastic.”
Of course, no one individual can be said to have created ISIS.
Instead, the group’s existence is the result of an unfortunate series of events. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which overturned centuries of Sunni Muslim rule, led to the rise of an al Qaeda branch in the country.
Remnants fled to Syria after the US surge of 2007 and morphed into ISIS after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. ISIS members stormed back into Iraq in 2014, feeding off Sunni resentment of the Shiite-first policies of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a weak Iraqi army, and heavy Iranian interference in Iraqi politics.
Slowly and with US airpower, weapons, and advisers, Iraqi Kurds and a reconstituted Iraqi army – plus Iran-backed Shiite militias — are clawing back ISIS territory in Iraq. In Syria, Kurds are also at the forefront of the anti-ISIS campaign and recently recaptured the strategic town of Manbij from the jihadi group.
Hoping to destroy the ISIS “caliphate” before he leaves office, Obama needs no more rhetorical interference from Trump.
Even before he falsely pinned the rise of ISIS on Obama and Clinton, Trump gave enemies of America multiple talking points. His plan to ban Muslim immigration and exploitation of terrorist attacks to denigrate the Muslim faith have fed the Islamic fundamentalist narrative of an inevitable war between Christendom and Islam.
Trump’s comments also appear to have stoked Islamophobia in the United States.
Muslim Americans and other minorities say they have felt the brunt of prejudice as never before since Trump became a candidate. Over the weekend, a Muslim cleric and his assistant were shot to death in the New York City borough of Queens. Although police said there was no evidence that the victims’ religion was a factor, members of the local Bangladeshi immigrant community said they feared the murders might be a hate crime.
There are also conspiracy theories rising on the side of Trump’s opponents.
As Trump flounders in the polls, some are beginning to argue that he never wanted to be president and is actually a Trojan horse for the Clinton campaign, or simply seeking to boost his businesses. Another narrative making the rounds is that Trump is a “Manchurian candidate” consciously or inadvertently serving the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian hacking of Democratic websites, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and the revelation that Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, received millions of dollars from a Russian-backed former president of Ukraine, have all fueled this scenario.
Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee is facing a barrage of new and old conspiracy theories, from the claim that she was responsible for the death of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster in the 1990s to a new one promoted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange that her campaign ordered the murder of a young staffer on the Democratic National Committee to punish him for releasing emails. Foster was found to have committed suicide and there is no evidence that the staffer’s death was connected to the campaign or that he had anything to do with the leaks, which have largely come from Assange’s own outfit.
Hard as it may be in these contentious times with so much polarization in the United States and around the world, it is crucial that facts, not unsubstantiated stories, determine how Americans vote and what policies the next president pursues.
Unfortunately, even if he loses the election, Trump is unlikely to stop feeding the conspiracy industry; already he has suggested that if Clinton wins in November, it is only because the system is “rigged.”