FRESH AIR

The latest Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories from the Middle East and far right

Aug 10, 2020 | Jack Gross

Iranian TV recently aired a video entitled "COVID-1948" which compares Israel to the coronavirus (Credit: Channel 2 (Iran)).
Iranian TV recently aired a video entitled "COVID-1948" which compares Israel to the coronavirus (Credit: Channel 2 (Iran)).

 

During times of crisis and uncertainty, it is not uncommon for people to create false narratives and conspiracy theories. This is certainly true in the case of the coronavirus. AIJAC policy analysts Judy Maynard and Oved Lobel wrote about global coronavirus conspiracy theories in April, and Oved Lobel produced an update in May. Meanwhile, academic Ran Porat published some revelations about such conspiracies in the Australian media in Arabic in the Australia/Israel Review.

Whether assigning blame to the West for the creation and spread of the virus or blaming Israel, the Middle Eastern media has continued to be a source of these harmful claims. Meanwhile, the far-right has also been a major source of antisemitic conspiracy theories linking the outbreak of the virus to a Jewish plot, especially online.

Coronavirus conspiracy theories have been spreading as fast as the virus itself and appear to be readily accepted by large minorities in some democratic countries. In fact, an Oxford University study revealed that 1 in 5 people in Britain believe that the Jews are somehow behind the coronavirus.

This blog will report some examples of the more outlandish conspiracy theories emanating from the Middle East and the far-right that have appeared since late May – although of course other sources of such conspiracies also exist, including the far left. 

Clerical Errors

Religious leaders have been prominent among those peddling dangerous beliefs about the coronavirus pandemic. Iranian Shi’ite cleric Sayed Abbas Mousavi Motlagh, a prominent seminary lecturer and religious affairs expert, has frequently commented on the pandemic in conspiratorial terms since February.

During a Friday prayer in Qom, Iran on July 24, he stated that the virus is secular and man-made and was released to exclusively harm religious communities and push people to a more secular lifestyle. He called on his followers to “neutralize the destructive influence of this plot – of this man-made virus.”

On July 17, Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian, another Iranian cleric who is outspoken about his opposition to the West, posted in his Telegram channel a guide for virus protection. Tabrizian, who calls himself “the father of Islamic medicine”, claims that western medicine has failed in preventing the spread of the virus. He claimed that, since men are needed to support the family and spend a lot of time outside of the home, wearing a mask and breathing in all of the carbon monoxide buildup would lead to more harm and disease. He also claimed that men are immune to the coronavirus and only women carry and transmit the disease.

He concluded by claiming that only women have a religious and moral requirement to cover their faces under Sharia law.

A week after the cleric posted the guide, his office refuted the statements and claimed that the post, “’Masks and the Coronavirus’… was posted by one of his students… and is not in any way the opinion of Ayatollah Tabrizian.” 

Meanwhile, Ahamd Nofal is a professor of Islamic Law at the University of Jordan who frequently appears on Yarmouk TV, a Jordanian news network with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Nofal has a history of holocaust denial.

On May 15 he said that COVID-19 was sent to Earth from Allah to subdue anyone who refuses to surrender to him. He explained that modern people are obsessed with modernisation and the impacts of the virus are a punishment from Allah. “You may laugh a little, but you shall all cry a great deal,” he concluded.

COVID-19 is Israel

An unconventional approach to conspiracy theories was seen in a recent video aired on Channel 2 in Iran. While it doesn’t overtly lay blame on Israel, Israelis, or Jews for the COVID-19 pandemic, it draws a troubling comparison between the foundations of the State of Israel and COVID-19.

The video, entitled COVID-1946, states that the much more silent and deadlier virus than the coronavirus is the “virus of Israel.” The narrator of the video explains that while the coronavirus has limited people’s movement in cities for a few days, the virus of Israel has been interrupting the lives of the Palestinians for years.

The video compares the fight against the coronavirus to the fight against Israel. The narrator claims that the coronavirus will be defeated because people are coming together in solidarity, unity, and mutual aid. The video calls upon all freedom-seeking nations to rid the world of the “Israel virus” using the same tactics applied to fighting COVID-19.

Blaming the Jews

Many of these Middle Eastern conspiracy theories do not shy away from antisemitism. On May 18 an article in the Syrian Government Daily by former Kuwaiti MP Abd Al-Rahman Dashti claimed the virus was artificially developed and spread by the U.S. to collapse the Chinese economy to resume its role of global superpower. He notes that the plan was coordinated by “the Zionist Freemasons, the Rothschilds, and the Rockefellers” who control every sector of American life.

He adds that it’s important to mention that the European country most affected by the virus, Italy, has signed over US$5 million in contracts with China and did not allow U.S. missiles to be deployed on their soil.

He concluded the article by stating, “The aim of this biological war is to restore the Rothschilds’ global control by giving massive loans to the aged European continent so that it will be rejuvenated and will return to the straight path, and so that it will understand that the economic game continues to be in the hands of the U.S. But all this will not prevent a direct world war. Tomorrow will come soon enough.”

A similar article in March by Dashti on the Iraqi news website, Sahat-altahreer.com, stated that according to China, it was 67 U.S. troops who left Afghanistan to attend a military exercise in China that brought the coronavirus to the Wuhan food market.

Journalists have also peddled in coronavirus conspiracy theories rooted in antisemitism. Lebanese journalist Dr. Hassan Hamade said in an interview with OTV (Lebanon) on May 28 that the Lebanese people should look to the “eastern option” since the West has made it clear that they view Lebanese people as guinea pigs that only serve the interests of the Jews.

He continues by explained that the “Blood Vipers”, the children of Rockefeller, Morgan, and Rothschild, constitute the global government which created ISIS and possibly the coronavirus pandemic.

From the Far-Right

Another outlet promulgating these absurd theories is the so-called dark web, which is an echo chamber of antisemitism, racism, and conspiracy theories and which extremists use as a way to go undetected by large search engines and remain anonymous. The dark web has offered cultivation, protection, and community for many far-right white nationalists, such as the terrorist behind the massacre at the Christchurch, New Zealand Mosque and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter.

Today, sites like Gab and 8chan are full of commentary about Jewish “responsibility” for the coronavirus pandemic. Antisemitic ideas of Jewish global dominance and control, Holocaust denial, control of financial systems, and carriers of disease are all foundations of far-right thought and sentiment.

Antisemitic cartoons similar to this one can be found all throughout the dark web (Credit: Flora Cassen).

For example, one anonymous user posted this cartoon, “It’s not Chinese. It’s the JEW FLU!” accompanied by the internet’s favourite antisemitic cartoons of an Orthodox Jew beside an inflated picture of the coronavirus.

These dark web discussion boards are flooded with similar posts about how the virus was created in a Chinese lab controlled by the Jews to consolidate their grip on world dominance.

Most of the time these radicals stick to their undetected channels of communication, but sometimes they break out into the mainstream media. Many Jewish journalists were harassed by far-right trolls during the buildup to the 2016 US Presidential election. The Charlottesville Unite the Right protest had foundations in the dark web. In April, neo-Nazis vandalised an Alabama Synagogue by spray painting swastikas and the words “Satan” and “Holohoax” all over. Weeks later, a protestor at an Ohio anti-lockdown protests was found carrying a sign in the style of the Israeli national flag depicting the same antisemitic orthodox caricature as a rat with the words, “the real plague.”

This antisemitic protestor was spotted at an April 16 stay-at-home order protest in Columbus, Ohio (Credit: Twitter).

Antisemitic conspiracies have always flourished during any universal disaster. However, this wave of antisemitism has spread concerningly quickly. The age of connectivity combined with the resurgence of age-old tropes, an all-time high for antisemitic incidents worldwide, distrust in government lockdown policies, and the growth of the coronavirus has created a perfect breeding ground to scapegoat the Jews. The British Community Security Trust (CST) and the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University have both expressed deep concern about the unprecedented spread of this wave of antisemitism.

One in Five Britons believes COVID-19 is a Jewish Conspiracy

Behind nearly every one of the world’s catastrophes, one could find a conspiracy theory that blames the Jews. What’s even more concerning is not the theories themselves, but rather the number of people who believe them. The results from a recently published study conducted by Oxford University came up with some very alarming figures for just how many people believe in these dangerous ideas.

The findings are part of a larger study being conducted by researchers at the University studying people’s attitudes towards the virus and the measures being taken to prevent the spread.

The Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey (OCEANS) was published on May 24. Professor Daniel Freeman surveyed 2,500 adults of different age, gender, region, and income on their reactions to the government’s COVID prevention plan and conspiracy theories.

The participants were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with 48 coronavirus related conspiracy theories.

When asked, “Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain,” 19.2% of the participants agreed with the statement to some extent. Similar results were posted when asked a similar question about other racial groups such as Muslims.

The study found that if an individual was to believe in one of the theories, they were most likely to believe in many of them. “If a person blamed Jews, they were also more likely to blame Muslims, Bill Gates and pharmaceutical companies too. What we are observing is most likely a conspiracy mentality: a way of seeing the world that is marked by antipathy to official or mainstream accounts or to those in higher status positions,” according to Freeman.

Freeman found that only half of the participants interviewed were completely unaffected by any of the theories.

The current wave of anti-semitism is rooted in the notion that the Jews, Zionists, or the State of Israel are somehow behind the pandemic. The antisemitic theories have manifested in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East differently. In the U.S. and Europe, far-right extremist and white supremacists have assigned blame to Jews, especially Haredi Jews, while the Middle Eastern extremists and governments themselves have pointed the finger at Israel and Mossad for creating the virus. Nearly all of the antisemitic discourse draws upon age-old tropes such as Jewish world domination and blood libel, but have been renewed in a 21st-century format to reflect the coronavirus.

Conspiracy theories have always had a home in the fringe left and right. Current studies show that this minority has grown as more and more people are distrustful of their government and medical experts regarding the coronavirus. It’s also very concerning that many radicals are given time on mainstream media channels to spread their fictitious beliefs to a larger audience. In the current pandemic there is no room for misinformation, especially when it undermines lifesaving medical guidelines and threatens already marginalised minority groups.

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