The Columnist as Conspiracist

Pierre Sema’an: Wild theories in Australia’s Arabic press

 

Inside the world of Pierre Sema’an

 

Over the past few months, the AIR has exposed extreme, antisemitic and venomously anti-Israeli content sometimes found within Arabic media in Australia, both in print and on radio. Our continuing monitoring of these platforms has revealed that such views continue to be disseminated. 

The subject of this month’s investigation is Pierre Sema’an, an exemplar of the sort of extreme and conspiratorial content that sometimes appears in Australian media in Arabic. A respected member of the Lebanese Maronite community in Australia, Sema’an is the “Australian affairs editor” of El-Telegraph newspaper. In this capacity, he regularly publishes his columns at El-Telegraph, which describes itself as the “Largest Lebanese and Arabic Daily Newspaper in Australia.” 

The Israel-Iran collusion conspiracy 

In a previous review (“The Dark Side of Arabic media”, Jan. 2018) of the Arabic press in Australia, the AIR noted a conspiratorial “masterpiece” by Sema’an, accusing Israel of being the real power which created and now manages ISIS (“Did Israel create ISIS?”, published in November 2017, on the Sydney-based Arabic website, Al-Anwar [“The Lights”]). 

Yet this is far from Se’eman’s only conspiracy theory about Israel.

Take for example his sensational column, “Everyone in the service of Israel ??” (June 14, 2018), which supposedly reveals the “real nature” of the relationship between Iran and Israel.

A taste of Pierre Sema’an: “Everybody in the service of Israel?”

In it, Sema’an “uncovers” that Iran and Israel are working together in a sophisticated collusion scheme: “The two countries have been able to deceive the Arabs and the world with their foes and create a state of tension that is being exploited across the Arab world through multiple channels.” What is the ultimate aim of this secretive cooperation between the two arch-nemeses that Sema’an has exposed? It is a ‘divide-and-conquer’ tactic into the heart of the Islamic Middle East: “Israel took advantage of its allies’ toppling Saddam Hussein and destroying Iraq’s military capability, through this opening the difficult transition [towards] realising the dream of the Persian kingdom and dividing the Arab world, the majority of the Sunni Arab world, into internal conflicts centred around the Sunni-Shiite conflict.” 

Another element in his mega-conspiracy is that “the superpowers… allowed Iran to start producing nuclear energy” to “shock” its enemies in the Arab world. 

Iran’s support of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime during the Syrian civil war, “under the pretext of fighting Israel and the elimination of the Zionist entity,” is meant really to achieve the same goal, he says. Even Hezbollah is “not far from the Iranian-Israeli understandings,” despite its repeated calls for Israel’s destruction and massive missile arsenal pointed at Israel.

As proof of his fantasy theory, Sema’an claims, for example, that Teheran “allows the best Israeli companies to invest in Iran through more than 200 Israeli companies active on its territory.” Sema’an is inflating and exaggerating information found in reports in the Israeli media from 2011. According to an Israeli news item, seven oil tankers belonging to the multinational company Tanker Pacific, which is owned by Israeli businessman Sami Ofer, docked in the Iranian port at Khark Island between 2004-2010 under a Singaporean flag. One of the tankers was later sold and ended up in Iranian ownership. According to a later report that year, 200 Israeli companies had been trading with Iran indirectly and under the table on some scale. 

Sema’an subscribes to conspiracy theories long endemic to the Arab Middle East which insist Israel is an agent for Western imperialism whose real purpose is to rob the people of the Middle East of their wealth and make sure that instead of progress, they experience only conflict. Thus he writes that “Israel has its political agenda in the region, as well as the West, headed by the United States and Britain, aimed at putting the[ir] hand on the oil wealth of the region, and preventing the transformation of Arab wealth into positive factors for the development of the region and the spread of modernity and openness to the world, but [ensuring it is] spent on wars and destruction.”

Yet Sema’an’s earlier piece “Political and religious reasons for a close war between Israel and Iran” (Feb. 2018, later removed from El-Telegraph’s website), predicting an Israel-Iran war, completely contradicted his later “analysis” about supposed Israel-Iran collusion. Moreover, it reveals some of the openly antisemitic sources he relies on. Starting out with an article in the guise of an alleged serious analysis of the situation in the Middle East, Sema’an then introduces a text which forms part of a mystical prophecy by Romanian-born fundamentalist priest Dumitru Duduman, who died in 1997. According to the text, a prophecy given directly to Duduman from Jesus while he was in the Galilee stipulates that Israelis are “evil” and sinners, rejecting peace, and hence will soon be destroyed in a large war that will start from the north. 

Factual Problems

Sema’an’s “analyses and exposés” often seem to have serious problems with their fact-checking. His conspiracy theories about evil global forces at work often feature claims which might more accurately be described as myths, rather than facts. 

Sema’an’s June 14 article on the supposed Iran-Israel conspiracy starts by praising religious freedom in Iran and to prove his point he argues that “The number of synagogues in Teheran alone exceeds 200.” Credible data is of course hard to obtain from the oppressive regime in Teheran, yet available information makes it clear this is a highly inflated figure (Wikipedia lists 64 synagogues in all of Iran, only 11 of which are actually functioning. Even before the 1979 revolution, when Iran’s Jewish community was much larger, there were only 30 active synagogues in Teheran). 

But inaccuracies in the article do not stop here. Iranian Jews in the United States amount to 60 to 80 thousand – not 12,000 as Sema’an suggests. And what about the ‘fact’ that “one-third of the Israeli army are Iranian Jews”? Wrong, not to mention demographically impossible. The IDF has an estimated 175,000 soldiers in its ranks, plus 450,000 reservists. 200,000 Jews of Iranian ancestry live in Israel, most of whom are too old to serve in the army, out of an overall population in excess of 8 million. 

Sema’an also struggles with personal information. He claims that the leader of Iranian Jews now living in Israel is Yedidya Shofet “who is close to the regime in Iran”. Yet Shofet fled to the US after the 1979 revolution and passed away in 2005. “Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Katsav is an Iranian from Isfahan” Sema’an claims. Well, no. Katsav was born in Yazd, and he is a (disgraced) former President of Israel, but was never defence minister. The only recent Israeli defence minister of Iranian descent was General (ret.) Shaul Mofaz, who served from 2002 to 2006 and was born in Teheran. 

“Menachem Turnbull”

In his paranoid and conspiratorial world, Sema’an appears to also believe that Australian politicians are also servants of an international amorphous anti-religious league set to impose atheism on the world. In that context, Islamic extremism “is the fabrication of their designs. It is just a tool they use to keep the people in a state of dependence and accept them as their masters.” 

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (while he was still in office) received especially vicious treatment. For example, Sema’an shamelessly hints (“Malcolm Turnbull: Leftist Ideology and Suspicious Relationships. Have you come close to ousting him?”, 23 Aug.), that Turnbull supports child pornography, and that he “is working undercover to achieve the ‘clash of civilisations’ plan and to destabilise Western countries […] Turnbull seems to be working within a global agenda that seeks to impose atheist socialism, destroy religions, blur the cultural differences between nations and walk under the tutelage of the United Nations, and is now the global alternative organisation of the actual world government that Turnbull wants.” Similarly, a few months earlier (“What people do not know about Malcolm Turnbull”, 7 March), Sema’an accused Turnbull of being corrupt – a bribe-paying criminal and one of the “global capitalists”. 

In an article published Nov. 21, 2017, but later removed from the website, Sema’an even labelled the then Prime Minister “Menachem Turnbull” – implying a Jewish connection as if it were a negative attribute. According to Sema’an, Turnbull “supports the Muslims not [for] their love, but [in service of] the Zionist political plan seeking to hit the Islamic and Christian worlds and the use of Islamic terrorism to destroy Europe and the West.” Outspokenly against gay relationships, Sema’an says Australia’s move to legalise same-sex marriage, which “Turnbull has worked cleverly to legislate,” is also part of the former PM’s “global atheism agenda”, which “is what the United Nations and world Zionism want.” 

A voice for whom?

One might correctly note that Pierre Sema’an does not represent the norm in the Arabic media in Australia. However, the problem is that deranged and dangerous views like his take advantage of the podium presented by the Arabic press in Australia, without much direct challenge. The right of free speech is a core value of our society – yet a key part of that right functioning constructively is for abhorrent speech to be exposed, challenged and marginalised, and for the purveyors of such speech to pay a price in public disapproval. 

That has not and is not happening with Sema’an, who remains a long-standing regular columnist, and “Australian affairs editor” at what is perhaps the largest and most significant Arabic-language newspaper in Australia. 

In addition, his views may be an indication of a wider problem. Sema’an’s readership, Arabic-speaking Australians, should be critical enough to reject conspiratorial, antisemitic and defamatory claims such as those in many of Sema’an’s columns. Unfortunately, as the AIR has learnt from monitoring various media in Arabic in Australia over the past few months, this often does not seem to be the case. Indeed, Sema’an may be saying out loud what some parts of the Arab population in Australia are inclined to think and believe. And that should be very worrying. 

Dr. Ran Porat lectures on Middle East studies at Monash University and is a researcher at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.