Destroyed: ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, blown up by the Taliban in 2001. Photo: Salim Saheb Ettaba/AFP/Getty
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Darius Guppy: the US condemns Iran but allies itself with the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia

Iran does has grave problems but family life is of a quality that has largely disappeared in the west and privacy is respected. Nor is there any sense of the oppression one finds in Wahhabi societies.

America and its lackeys, describing themselves as “the international community”, are bullies and the Persians have never liked bullies. The Achaemenid kings drew up the world’s first charter of human rights and created a template for tolerant, civilised governance that has been the model for nations ever since. Iran has suffered wave after wave of invasion by various, and culturally inferior, powers over the centuries. As a result, identification with the oppressed is deeply rooted in the nation’s psyche, the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn at the hands of a cruel tyrant on the battlefield of Karbala providing the passion for Iran’s Shiaism.

Writing recently in the Daily Mail, Max Hastings acknowledged the west’s bullying of the Islamic world and its role in setting alight the Middle East, but he also argued that Muslims must shoulder at least some of the responsibility. However, he made two errors common in liberal commentary when he hypothesised that while the Christian world has adapted to modernity, Islam’s misfortune has been its failure to do so.

First, Christianity did not “adapt” to modernity. It capitulated. The Church was defeated by the state with the advent of the Enlightenment and the triumph of secularism. Second is the smug assumption that this capitulation by the Church represents a salutary outcome and that if only Islam had done likewise the world would be a better place. That is the whole point; Muslims do not buy into this narrative.

The American dream is failing in America, never mind the rest of the world, and the greatest threat to humanity is the propagation of a system that wreaks environmental havoc and creates extreme social inequality – not, as we are told, a bunch of plotters in some cave in Waziristan, nor even Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

With God’s dethronement in the west, a civilisational crisis was unleashed and three secular responses were proposed: fascism, communismand capitalism. The first two have been defeated; the third is entering its endgame.

Imam Khomeini posited a fourth response with his 1979 Islamic Revolution. It has been the west’s ambition ever since for that response to fail, because its success would represent an affront to its perceived interests. Khomeini’s followers and large parts of the Sunni world have grasped, correctly, that neoliberalism and neocolonialism are the same. The key is not to modernise, as Max Hastings puts it, but to modernise without westernising.

Now, however, conflict in Syria and Iraq threatens to embroil the entire region in a “Sunni-Shia” civil war, as it is mistakenly being called. In fact, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others have lived here in harmony for most of Islam’s existence and the horrific internecine conflicts that punctuated Christendom have been largely absent from the Muslim world until recently. What is viewed as a “Sunni-Shia” divide is largely a “Wahhabi-Shia” divide.

Wahhabism is a Saudi-funded and Saudi-propagated heresy that has nothing to do with mainstream Islam. Dark and intolerant, it contradicts the Quran, which emphasises God’s love of beauty. Wahhabism has not produced a single line of verse, nor any magnificent buildings, nor even a handsome artefact. Its greatest technological achievement has been the explosive vest. The Taliban’s dynamiting of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan in March 2001 epitomises the Wahhabi misunderstanding of the Prophet’s message. No previous Islamic power in the region had done such a thing. Nor did Muslim conquerors destroy Greek temples in Asia Minor, the pyramids in Egypt, Persepolis in Iran or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Little wonder that, next to Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism’s other great sponsor should be the United States of America.

The same cannot be said for Iran, whose cultural output has had few rivals – nor for genuine Sunni Islam, which has produced some equally wonderful civilisations.

Despite there being no evidence that Iran wishes to acquire nuclear technology for reasons other than peaceful use, vicious sanctions imposed by the bullies have made life very difficult for ordinary Iranians: from the absence of everyday goods to the fettering of the country’s banking system.

Iran has grave problems, such as drug addiction, but family life is of a quality that has largely disappeared in the west and privacy is respected. Nor is there any sense of the oppression and chauvinism one finds in Wahhabi societies. As anyone who knows Iranian women will attest, it is hard to imagine a less downtrodden type. Indeed, the joke goes that Iranians are so civilised they even allow men to drive.

The sponsors of Wahhabism fear Iran precisely because of its potential to threaten their monopoly of power and privilege. Too naive to know it, young European-based “jihadists” in Syria and Iraq sacrifice their lives for their enemies, who exult in Whitehall, Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv every time one of their acts of destruction dishonours their religion, divides the bona fide resistance and gives one more excuse for enacting yet further Orwellian legislation.

I visit the Middle East often and Iran strikes me as the most rational player in the region. While virtually the entire Muslim world, or its “elites”, have collaborated with the west, the same could not be said of Iran. Britain is about to reopen its embassy in Tehran but this won’t make any difference because, on the critical issue, things could not be simpler: either Iran acquires nuclear technology for civil purposes, in which case it wins, or it doesn’t, in which case the west wins. President Rowhani has impeccable revolutionary credentials and I suspect Iran’s diplomats will continue to run rings round their western counterparts. If they had longer legs, and were called Angelina, it would be a lot easier, though.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit