Transnational Conspiracy Theories and Vernacular Visual Cultures: Political Islam in Turkey and America

Curator's Note

“Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth,” states an epistemological folk theory. Successful theories of conspiracy – those that are ultimately true as well as false – all depend on what Stephen Colbert would call “truthiness”: “the quality by which you know something purely by feeling, without regard to logic, evidence, or intellectual examination.” While visual documentation, including photographs and charts, has long been used as “proof” in conspiracy theorizing, the role unrealistic images might play in generating feelings of truthiness has not been subjected to sustained analysis. This gap is even more jarring in the case of contemporary conspiracy theories regarding political Islam, given the importance of “looking” Muslim to both hate-crimes and conspiracy theorizing. An even larger gap in scholarship exists in terms of images and conspiracy theories regarding political Islam in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey.

The short slideshow to the side juxtaposes Turkish conspiracy book covers and cartoons about political Islam with U.S.-based images regarding “creeping Shariah” in the United States. It begins with two images used as “proof” and moves on to images that are clearly fake, but mobilize “truthiness.” There are some striking convergences in how a dangerous, subversive Muslim identity is constructed visually in these images, as well as politically telling divergences. The negative Muslim figures have quite a bit in common in both countries, most strikingly, the presence of some type of headdress or veil. The threat is also regularly gendered in both contexts.

In the United States, negative images of Islam cast the religion as an ahistorical, racialized, biologized force; in Muslim-majority Turkey, however, the “perversity” of political Islam is deeply historicized, politicized, and connected to capitalism. Actors are often not generic, racially-Othered Muslims but recognizable political and religious figures (e.g. Prime Minister Erdogan and U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen). Moreover, the American flag and/or Uncle Sam and Israel are never far from the scene, not as victims, but as the supporters and even overseers of a vast plot to balkanize and weaken Turkey through political Islam. Such images trouble any binary opposition between America and Islam, between tribal "Jihad" and capitalist "McWorld," and between anti-Americanism and Islamophobia. Lots of perceived clashes and alliances, but no "clash of civilizations" here.



Perin, thanks for a great contribution to the week (& an awesome use of the slide-show format)! Also, thanks for introducing us the iconography of Turkish conspiracy theory, which I didn't know about at all before. Aside from the similarities you mentioned, I found the convergence of anti-muslim, anti-American & anti-Israeli motifs in the Turkish examples you chose quite striking --mostly because such a connection would probably make little sense to the mainstream of American conspiracy theorists (and this connection would probably also not occur to their their German counterparts -- perhaps because the mainstream of German media seems to frame Erdogan as a culturally conservative modernizer with mixed feelings about westernization). I wondered if you could elaborate a bit on the background of these Turkish examples, since I am totally unfamiliar with these and their contexts: what kind of political projects and agendas do these theories align with and how prominent is this idea of a combined US/Israel/Islamist plot to weaken Turkey?

Hi Felix, Thank you so much for your comment! I realize this stuff is weird; I think its foreignness to Westerners is both fascinating and telling in terms of how much the West/Islam binary has structured American and European political thought. Let me answer the easiest question first: this theory is so popular in Turkey that the former U.S. Consul de General in Istanbul ended up publishing a piece condemning it: His exasperated tone really says it all. You see this theory on facebook, you see it on book stands, and you have 4-star generals and MPs propagating it on TV. As for the context, it has to do with Turkey's history of very strict laicite, the belief that foreign forces are always out to divide the country (what some have called the Sevres syndrome) and the fact that AKP rule has combined Islamization with a neoliberal privatization frenzy. In this case, AKP's "moderate Islam" is seen not in opposition to radical Islam but to Turkish secularism and nationalism. It is well-known that the United States courted Islam for its Cold War projects against communism; the mythology of the founding of the Turkish republic after WWI also notes that many religious figures were okay with the imperialist division of the country. For many Turks, the current plot is simply a continuation of these earlier histories. It would take too, too long to explain the discursive and affective complexities of the theory, which i hope to do in an essay in the coming year or two. I am, however, very grateful to you for asking the brave and proper question of wtf. ;-)

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