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?

GETTY
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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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