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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot