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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era