Conspiracy theories about the latest outbreak of the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic have become commonplace in the Middle East. As reported by the Times of Israel, social media, news outlets and even leaders, tap into people’s fears and antisemitic tendencies, and blame identifiable ‘enemies’ – particularly the US and Zionists, but also China – for deliberately causing the disease.
Unfortunately, Australia is not immune from the coronavirus-related conspiracy theory plague. Several Australian based platforms in Arabic employ their access to thousands of Arabic-speaking Australians, Muslim and Christian alike, to import, repackage and disseminate delibrate lies about the origins of the virus, while often also spreading hate towards Jews.
Worse still, they provide a podium for messages that openly dispute the legitimacy and authority of official, government heath directives meant to save lives as humanity faces the coronavirus crisis. In some cases, open calls to defy government orders crucial to public safety are being disseminated.
Over the next paragraphs I will review original and republished articles featured in three media platforms, in Arabic and English, whose target audiences are Arabic-speaking Australians.
The second is Sydney-based Farah News Online (www.farah.net.au), a news portal in Arabic and English exposed in my previous TOI blog post as a proliferator of antisemitism. This website features almost exclusively non-original content previously published in Middle Eastern media. External analytic platforms suggest thousands of people visit the website monthly, while its Facebook page had close to 17,000 followers as of March 2020.
The final outlet is the Facebook page of the Australian branch of the pan-Islamic fundamentalist Hizb ut-Tahrir movement. The Australian leaders of the movement, which advocates the re-establishment of a Caliphate, are notoriously known for expressing antisemitic views, including Holocaust denial, and other conspiracy theories (for example, that Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, killed by the US, was an American agent).
Pierre Sema’an’s collection of conspiracies
Pierre Sema’an is the senior columnist for El-Telegraph. He has a long history of spreading conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes in his columns. He has claimed that the US, the West and Israel created and operated Islamic State and that Iran and Israel conspire together to control the Middle East, in a plot masterminded by the Rothschild banking family.
Nowadays Sema’an is busy working to introduce his readers to as many coronavirus conspiracy theories as possible by dedicating a series of articles to this topic. In his texts, he both lists virus-related fantasies and makes contradictory claims about the origins and “purposes” of the virus, and does little to refute any of the theories. “Although many conspiracy theories seem out of reach and difficult to verify”, he says, “the prevailing belief [is] that the world’s evil forces follow a secret public health plan.”
Sema’an reviews two mutually contradictory stories, neither of which is supported by any genuine evidence. One is the accusation that US has created the virus as a bio-weapon in its trade war with China. In the second one, popular in anti-China circles, the virus was produced and spread by China’s Wuhan Research and Biological Sciences Laboratory.
Following up on a theory advanced by British Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist David Icke, Sema’an – who attacked the decision to deny Icke a visit to Australia in 2018 – also disseminates some fake news about the 5G mobile network. According to this fabrication, China uses the 5G infrastructure to transmit energy which induces flu like symptoms in the general public, and later forces people to get false flu vaccines, which are actually shots that cause COVID-19.
Sema’an also lists some even wilder theories hand-picked from the dark corners of the internet, such as the racist idea that the virus is an ethnically-specific bio-weapon that does not target Africans, or that the US TV animated show, “The Simpsons”, predicted the emergence of the virus many years ago.
The virus – an evil world government plot
Most of all, Sema’an is captivated by the fantasy that COVID-19 was created by a mysterious and secretive world government, “the Illuminati, a fascist, Nazi-oriented organization”, comprised of towering public figures and leaders from different countries, united as in the sinister “Club of Rome”, made up of either atheists, or Zionists, or possibly even aliens (based on his support of David Icke, who believes shapeshifting alien lizards control the world).
This evil group, asserts Sema’an, is using the virus as part of its mega plot to push forward the wicked Agenda 21 plan to reduce global population to only 5% of current numbers. In reality, Agenda 21 was a 1992 non-binding UN plan to preserve the global environment.
Sema’an also posits that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, “a group of officers in the United States decided to turn the table at the head of the political class and decided to create a global crisis that would help them achieve their goals and besiege politicians.”
“To achieve this reduction in the world’s population in a relatively short period of time”, explains Sema’an, policies are being initiated such as unleashing the coronavirus, inciting false wars, promoting sexual promiscuity and narcotics abuse and much more. In light of the devastating bush fires in Australia in recent months, Sema’an pushed the conspiracy that the “Club of Rome” was controlling the weather (citing the refuted “Chemtrail” delusion) to kindle the fires in order to drive farmers off their lands.
With regards to the virus, Sema’an cites a 2015 quote from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a supposed member of the “Club of Rome”, about the dangers of viruses to humanity and asks, “Was [Gates] aware that [Coronavirus] would inevitably happen due to international conflicts and the intention of reducing the world’s population?”. Sema’an concludes that “What is happening in the world today is a conflict between the civil/political and the milita… to impose a new order.”
But have no fear – Sema’an has found the cure for COVID-19. Championing traditional Lebanese myth about the alleged healing powers associated with the tomb of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, a19th century Maronite monk, he is convinced that “Providence offered [Lebanon] a free healing remedy from a pinch of earth from the tomb of Saint Charbel… a free vaccine to treat the corona epidemic and all physical and spiritual epidemics.”
Alsibai’: Uncle Sam created and profits from the virus
Dr. Mouaffaq Mustafa Alsibai’ is a Syrian author of a series of antisemitic articles portraying the Jews as evil and the enemies of humanity previously featured on Farah News.
In his recent analyses of the virus, Alsibai’ alleges that the epidemic is a punishment from Allah against infidels, the Communist Chinese, the pagan Persians and “Uncle Sam.” Specifically (like Sema’an), he blames “Uncle Sam” who he says “is eager for such an event [the virus], he uses his media machine that controls the entire globe, to sow terror, panic, and inflated fear millions of times!!! […] America aims to reduce the world’s population by two thirds [while] making billions.”
Abdel Rahman: Netanyahu responsible for 9/11, Bush murdered Kennedy
Egyptian writer, Amr Abdel Rahman is another Farah News favourite. An enthusiastic anti-Zionist activist, with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Rahman is a fan of conspiracy theories, and argued in 2015 that the intelligence agencies of Israel, the US and the UK instigated the explosion of a Russian passenger airplane over the Sinai Peninsula (Metrojet Flight 9268, Oct. 31, 2015). In fact, this was almost certainly an ISIS terror act.
The coronavirus crisis appears to have been a trigger for a surge of creativity by Abdel Rahman. His recent article published on Farah News, titled “Beyond Corona, this is how the best soldiers of the earth win against the Antichrist,” is a confusing mix of a number of wild conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes.
After predictably accusing the US of producing the virus as part of its conflict with China, Abdel Rahman, lays the blame for the 9/11 terror attacks on Israel and Iran, both of whom, he claims, originated from the ancient Turkish Khazar tribe (a refuted conspiracy theory often repeated by Abdel Rahman): “The two towers were struck in collusion with the leader of the Khazari mafia ‘Benjamin Netanyahu’ – to drag America into the war of genocide (in collusion with pagan Persian Iran)!”. He later adds that “George HW Bush” assassinated President John F. Kennedy because the later exposed an evil plot involving the Freemasons.
Antisemitism appears when Abdel Rahman claims that Jewish banking families such as the Rothschilds control the world, and that Zionism represents a tool of the “Aryan elites” implementing a masterplan for population reduction by such means as controlling the weather, while utilising “American, Nazi, and British intelligence, the Mossad, NATO, international news agencies, the city of ‘Hollywood’ […] and the ‘CERN’ laboratories.”
Just like Sema’an, Abdel Rahman turns to his homeland to save the world: “Egypt would lead the world and respond and deter” this evil plot, he claims.
El Liddawi: US using COVID-19 in service of the Zionists
Palestinian-born Lebanon resident Moustafa El Liddawi is a former member of the terrorist organisation Hamas. He is an open antisemite, expressing his belief, for example, in the truth of the ancient blood libel that Jews drink non-Jewish blood as part of annual Passover holiday celebrations.
In an article republished on Farah News, Liddawi asserts that the virus is “an active act and human industry and a human decision, and I firmly believe that it is a shameful and frank American aggression against China… [The US decided that China] had to be attacked, weakened, occupied and controlled [… using] this biological battle.” Since the US failed to topple the Iranian regime, Liddawi adds, “it resorted to declaring a health war on it” using the virus. The real aim of this imaginary biological warfare is to subject all the Middle East “to the American hegemony […and] in the service of the Zionist entity.”
Liddawi also claimed that Israel is using the threat from coronavirus as a pretext to impose unnecessary abusive and harsh measures on the Palestinians. The reality is of course very different – Israel and the Palestinian Authority have actually boosted their cooperation and are working in tandem to help their mutual health systems cope with the virus emergency.
Calls to defy health directives from secular governments
The crazy fantasies listed above are bad enough as a vehicle for hate, division and misinformation. However, a bigger danger emerges when these media platforms actively encourage readers to challenge and even defy official health regulations intended to ensure “social-distancing” and slow the spread of coronavirus.
Sema’an, for example, questions the logic of government sanctioned precautionary measures suspending religious gatherings, including prayers in churches and mosques, and temporarily changing religious customs that include touching other people or objects in public spaces.
In his view, churches are protected from all diseases: “I think [these measures] reflect a kind of lack of faith and the primacy of material thought and the spirit of the world over divine power. We know historically that the Church, as long as it was at the center of crises, faced all dangers, battles and diseases, armed with the power of faith and the words of Christ who said: Do not be afraid, I conquered the world.”
Similarly, Alsibai’ vehemently rejects the prohibition on attending mass prayer at mosques to reduce exposure to coronavirus (as imposed in the Middle East and also in Australia). He declares that such measures are “an unforgivable crime… to deprive [worshippers] of divine mercy, which is revealed to them during the congregational and Friday prayers, and [the person doing this] will be greatly disgraced in the world, and suffer great punishment in the hereafter […] Those who prevent the Friday [gatherings at mosques] and congregational prayers are fighting against God, who has made [mosques] his homes.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Facebook page published a post in March with a Qur’anic-based discussion about the virus and epidemics in Islamic history. The conclusion of the post casts doubt on social distancing directives, which come from “colonial Kuffar (disbeliever)” rulers and have led to the closure of mosques for the Friday prayers. Citing past plagues in Islamic lands as the correct precedent to follow, the post concludes, “In all these cases, the mosques did not close and the Friday and the congregation prayers were not stopped. And the people were not locked up in their homes, but the sick were isolated, and the healthy people carried out their work, with jihad and building the earth. They went to the #mosques to pray and supplicated to Allah to protect them from the evil of this disease, in addition to the health treatment they followed in caring for the sick.”
Finally, a video hosted by Hizb ut-Tahrir preacher Wassim Doureihi posted on the movement’s Facebook page later that month dives into a philosophical debate in light of the Australian government orders differentiating between non-essential services, that should close to reduce exposure to the virus, and essential services that need to stay open. Although reiterating over and over Muslims must follow the advice of “experts”, Doureihi still seems to have a problem with abiding by the orders from a secular government.
“Can we accept as a [Muslim] community that government defines for us what is essential in our Din [religion] and what isn’t? […] I would argue that there is no problem with the closing of Masjids [mosques] if that is what the situation demands.”
But he adds: “why do we so readily and so easily allow the [secular] government to define for us, what is regarded as essential for us?… To allow the government to establish that for us on the basis other than the Shari’a [Islamic law] itself is going to be a problem for us”.
Doureihi is most worried about setting a precedent: “are we going to allow [in the future for] a secular authority to define for us what is essential [and] what is not, what is consensual and what is not, what is obligatory and what is not ? […] It’s not the role of secular institutions to dictate to us what is and isn’t Islamic.”
All this may seem subtle and intellectual, but it is not. This kind of reasoning can be powerful in triggering civic disobedience among devout believers in Islam.
The ongoing problem – lack of monitoring and enforcement
Covering Arabic media in Australia for several years now, I can’t help being disappointed at the lack of ongoing monitoring and proper enforcement to confront and marginalise the few extreme voices spreading poisonous views amongst the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Arabic-speaking Australians.
Now, these voices are taking advantage of the current unprecedented public health challenge to attempt to incite hatred of the other and spread fake news. Even worse, they are exposing those who follow their advice to serious health risks, and potentially exposing the wider community to contagion risks as well.
At this moment of crisis, this is a genuine danger that must not continue to go unnoticed and unchallenged.