Where to begin.
I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about this book. It is so incredibly problematic and inconsistent in its approach to each of the 10 Countries (the last of which is space, but honestly I didn’t get to it as I gave up half way through The Sahel). I’ve been thinking how best to describe it and the closest thing that comes to mind is the British education system: biases, absences, and omissions when it comes to anything to do with the British and accountability, while countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia , Turkey and The Sahel are subjected to hawkish interrogations. I wanted to love this book, in fact I’ve been coveting it for a while and borrowed a copy from my local library, for which I had to wait three months. Every review I read on Instagram gushed over it and its author, Tim Marshall, so as I began reading I was expecting it to be a really interesting look at the Geography of each nation and how that effects its geopolitical standing. It was not.
The book starts with Australia, and of the sections I read I thought it was the least offensive. It describes the land, the climate, its position in contrast to its neighbours and allies. Everything one might expect from a book about geography. Tim does speak about the Aboriginals and other indigenous people and briefly describes some of the horrors they have had to live through during the occupation of the land by the British. He also describes some of the racist policies of the 1970’s and Australia’s attempts to keep the country white. There is some history in this section too, describing Australia’s involvement in the second world war and the arrival of the Americans and the relationship between the two countries as well as a look at how Australia gets on with its regional neighbours and China.
The following sections, Iran and Saudi Arabia are slightly more problematic for me. They also begin with a little detail about each region geographically followed by some history. Then, Tim goes into full on assault on both nations by ways of character assassinations of its political leaders and mocking its way of life. For instance, he talks about Iran being antisemitic and spends a good while going over its relationship with Israel. I mean, let’s pretend for a second that Israel isn’t a settler colonial state annexing native land. Why isn’t the issue of relationships with Israel raised, for example with Australia, or the UK or even Greece. Given that the UK is responsible for the creation of Israel and antisemitism is historically (and many would argue continues to be) a big part of the British culture. Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope and George Eliot and even Roald Dahl use racist tropes in their writing and our current prime minister is on record for using anti-Semitic language, and yet no mention of this in any of the book. Only the Muslim countries are required to harbour a relationship with Israel, and only their leaders are held to account for their problematic behaviours. The British, responsible for the destruction of native people all over the globe from Australia to America are not once held to account, nor are they mentioned in the conflicts, such as the Iran – Iraq war. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the British continue to sell arms to the dessert nation yet somehow Tim forgets to mention this in all of his sanctimonious preaching about the problems of its Royal family. Nor does he mention the British Royal family, and its historic silencing of the media. Tim devotes pages to the Saudi king being linked to the killing of a journalist, yet nothing about The British monarchy having the press silenced with gagging orders and injunctions when it comes to allegations of Prince Andrew and sexual assault and battery of a minor? Both are heinous crimes, why is only one mentioned?
I’m going to skim over The UK and Greece for a moment and move onto Turkey. Again, like every section it begins with a historical look at the landscape, and Turkey, with its roots in the Ottomen Empire, has a rich history. Unfortunately, its radical Islam and Erdogan that interest Tim in the geography of Turkey. The ‘Islamists and nationalists’ can be found arguing for years over their relationship with Israel and the “conflict” with Gaza in 2008 was the “excuse” for cooling relations. So many problems with this passage. Firstly, “Islamists” are not a thing. Its triggering and inciting language. Secondly the accusations levelled against all Muslim countries about their relationship with Israel is also about creating a particular rhetoric, especially when those creating it refuse to look at Israel and its domestic policies of apartheid and segregation and refuse to see them as the colonisers they are. Of course, it’s not in the British interest, as it stands to be on the right side of history, as South Africa taught us, until they have some financial or political incentive.
In the non-white countries Tim’s main focus is upon religion, brutality and ethnicities, but he fails to mention the British involvement in creating these hostile environments. Britain had one of the largest Empires in history, but there is no mention of slave plantations, no mention of the treatment of its ethnic minorities (no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs) no mention of its overseas territories, and please, let’s not pretend Brexit was anything less than racist and divisive. In fact, when Tim does discuss slavery, he says “In 1807, having played a prominent role in the slave trade, Britain outlawed it. For the next few decades the royal navy actively pursued slave traders, liberating 150,000 people, while the government paid subsidies to African chiefs to persuade them to end the practise” This is what Tim reduces the British involvement in slavery too. He takes a jibe at the African chiefs but doesn’t mention anything about Britain having Plantations, stealing land and resources and stripping countries of their wealth in-order to continue to build its Empire. Its mind blowing to me that Erdogan gets more attention in this book than the British role in historical and contemporary colonisation and slavery.
In a book about Geography Tim spends a good amount of time talking about the history and characters that lead Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Not a single word is uttered about the leaders of the UK. He talks about Erdogan writing a poem during his time at university which somehow confirms he is a Muslim (Is that a problem??) but there’s no mention of what David Cameron was getting up to with a pigs head during his time at university? I suppose in Tim’s world copulating with a swine head is just good old British humour, but beware of the poets (only the Brown ones of course, there’s no issues with John Milton, John Donne and George Herbert religious poems!)
To confirm his right-wing hawkish attitudes he uses phrases like “his past does not prove he’s an Islamist” – can someone please clarify what an Islamist is? To me, a Muslim, who practises Islam, its racist jargon. Am I an Islamist? Is Boris a Christianist? Was Churchill the latter when he practically sanctioned the death of three million people during the Bengal famine? Tim doesn’t mention this in the book either. He uses terms like “overt Nationalists” to describe non-western leaders, so is the implication that Western leaders are not Nationalists? Again, wasn’t Brexit all about “reclaiming our nation, our sovereignty” on the leave side, the side our Prime Minister was on.
Whilst I have no issues with criticising questionable regimes, I think it says something about the writer if they only apply that critique and condemnation to the other, and not themselves. The British government have just passed a ruling allowing ministers to override judicial rulings if they don’t agree with them. Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, proposed in July and updated in November, exempts the government from giving notice of a decision to deprive a person of citizenship if authorities do not have the subject’s contact details or if it is not “reasonably practical” to do so. That’s bonkers and not exactly the sign on a healthy democracy.
There are more mentions of Fatwas then there are of the Fauklands, in fact there is no mention of the latter, which is strange in a book about Geography and geopolitics and has a section on the United Kingdom. The BBC gets a shoutout.
There is no mention of religious conflict in the History of Britain, no upset between the Catholics and Protestants unlike the Sunnis and Shia’s of the Muslim world. No mention of the ‘conflict’ over in Ireland or its history with Scotland, yet internal national identities dominated the sections of Iran and Turkey, as if these savages can’t live without conflict born from their religious differences, as if this is unique to only the non-white, Muslim, parts of the world. The IRA gets zero mentions in the book, verses 6 for ISIS, 2 for Hamas and 3 for Hezbollah and a whooping 13 for Israel (all in relation to Muslim countries!). Anti-Semitism 6 and racism/islamophobia 0. Tell me this book isn’t bias. You can argue that some historical conflicts don’t need to be mentioned in a book about geography, but you’d be wrong. The IRA firstly isn’t historical and the book contains enough history about The Romans, 1066, Henry the VIII, and Napoleonic wars. Tim picks and chooses the historical context to suit his misinformation agenda.
I think it’s really important to state that I’m not a fan of either Iran or Saudi, in fact I vehemently oppose both on almost every single thing. I’m anti the British selling arms to Saudi (I’m not sure where Tim stands on this) and I think monarchy’s are anti democratic, wherever in the world they are. The issue with this book is it is clearly written by someone who holds particular beliefs about people, which is made obvious by his approach to each country. The biggest problem with this book is exactly the same problem with the British education system: it’s not objective and entirely overlooks all the British involvement in geopolitics. The standards applied to each country vary and as such Tim Marshall proves himself to be the David Starkey of Geography.
The authors clear bias makes it difficult to take The Power of Geography seriously. He literally bypasses all of the British involvement in Africa with “the British, no saints themselves” blah blah blah (in the now infamous words of Greta!) There is no mention of the slave routes of the Europeans, just their arrival is marked!! Seriously! He speaks about the slave trade from Africa to the middle East, but not a word about the slave trade heading towards Europe or America 🤔
He mentions the arrival of Islam to Africa but nothing of Christianity?
My curiosity about the authors bias led me to do a quick search on him and I found out he worked for sky news, during the Murdoch era, but more concerning, he equates IS to Islam and Muslims (which is an incredibly problematic and quite frankly a ‘basic bitch’ hypothesis) He doesn’t think the west and it’s foreign policy, illegal wars (there is of course no mention of this!) and oil expeditions are responsible for the destabilising of parts of the world that have lived in peace for centuries, until the arrival of the West, that’s just coincidence, just like it was in India and across Africa. Colonialism, and the billions the Empire made off the backs of conflicts has nothing to do with it. This book should be called The Power of Bias or The Power of Duplicity and should be read with caution. It’s endorsed by, amongst others, Ed Hussain, the co-founder of the now inoperative (Hallelujah) Quilliam foundation, you can read more about them here. That in itself should tell you everything about its bias, but as a Muslim reader neither of these two things surprised me
Needless to say, I don’t recommend this book.