• 14 May 2008
  • Posted By Trita Parsi
  • 7 Comments
  • Iranian American activism

What Do Google and Saddam Have in Common?

Google has a funny way of doing business — one that involves muddying politics in the Middle East.

In recent months, the organization has taken the unprecedented step to rename internationally recognized bodies of water. Google Earth has begun using the controversial term “Arabian Gulf” to the body of water traditionally and internationally identified as the “Persian Gulf.”

Now many may think: What’s in a name? Why would this even be an issue?

In the Middle East, nothing is just a name. And with more than 180,000 US troops in this unstable region, being oblivious to the politics of geographical renaming is dangerous.

Historically, the accuracy of the term Persian Gulf is undisputed. Several legal documents from the United Nations as well as the United States Board of Geographic Names confirm the legitimacy of the term, as do millennia of classical history. For example, the ancient Greeks called the Persian Gulf, “Sinus Persicus,” the Romans called it “Mare Persicum,” and the Arabs called it, “Bahr al-Farsia.”

The political campaign to change the name Persian Gulf to the “Arabian Gulf” began approximately 50 years ago, as part of a pan-Arab strategy aimed at diminishing the status of non-Arab influences in the Middle East, including that of Iran and Israel.

It is a term whose very purpose has been to create divisions in an already divided region. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser used it to rally the Arab masses against Israel and Iran. A decade later, Saddam Hussein used it to mobilize the Arabs in the war against Iran. Today, the term is frequently used by radicals and militants in the Middle East — again, with the aim to create divisions and fuel conflict.

Google now has the dubious distinction of joining Nasser and Saddam Hussein in this political campaign.

In February 2008, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) sent a letter to Google’s CEO, Dr. Eric E. Schmidt, to explain the political background of the term and request that Google refrain from entering into the politics of geographical renaming and let the Persian Gulf remain the Persian Gulf.

More than three months later, Google has yet to formally respond to NIAC’s letter. In fact, the closest response NIAC has received is an ambiguous April 8 blog post on Google’s Public Policy Blog: “As the publishers of a geographic reference tool, we believe that Google should not choose sides in international geopolitical disputes. For this reason, we’ve chosen to implement a uniform policy of “Primary Local Usage.”

But what exactly is “Primary Local Usage”? And what is Google’ threshold of measurement?

Google defines its current policy of primary local usage as a combination of three separate markers (primacy, commonality, and locality) that they believe help Google avoid choosing “sides in international geopolitical disputes.”

According to a post on their public policy blog, the primacy marker means that out of each possible name only the most common name(s) for each body of water will be used. As for the commonality or the frequency of its use, a name must be widespread and not subject to arbitrary government renaming. Their final qualifier is the input of the neighboring nations that have a “stake” in the body of water; meaning that the deciding factor will be that neighboring nations all have input in potential names.

Although Google claims that this method allows for an “optimal combination of neutrality, objectivity, and legitimacy,” this unusual and uncharacteristically amorphous standard counteracts any “sensitivity” Google had hoped to convey.

In fact, it makes Google the very political tool it claims it seeks to avoid becoming.

In defense of its methods, Google has said that its safeguards will prevent a ruler from naming “the Pacific Ocean after her mother,” by requiring any potential name be commonly accepted by the general populace. Contrary to Google’s purported intentions, however, this policy actually opens the door for politically motivated geographical renaming.

By bypassing traditional academic sources, Google has turned itself into an enabler of those who would use name disputes to fuel conflict.

Had Google Earth existed in 1980 when Saddam Hussein first attempted to use the label “Arabian Gulf” as a way to rally support for invading Iran, it would have embraced the Iraqi dictator’s policy. By Google’s standards, Hussein’s arbitrary renaming would be (and is) a justifiable manipulation of geographical naming for political and divisive goals.

In fall 2004, the National Geographic Society (NGS) made a similar misstep by using the term Arabian Gulf for the Persian Gulf; but after a campaign led by the National Iranian American Council, the NGS recognized the folly of getting involved in the politics of geographical renaming and corrected their mistake in their 8th Edition maps.

Google could learn a thing or two from the NGS’s sensibility.

Posted By Trita Parsi

    7 Responses to “What Do Google and Saddam Have in Common?”

  1. Mark Pyruz says:

    Sounds like it’s time to write another letter.

  2. Michael Mahyar Hojjatie says:

    Or just transition to using Yahoo! instead (which is just as good good in my opinion, never once have I not found what I was looking for) and let them flash advertising at you instead of Google!

  3. […] What do Google and Saddam have in common? […]

  4. I believe that both Google and Saddam Hussein spurred conflict in the Middle East.

  5. Arya says:

    Dear Mahyar, Yahoo maps is using NAVTEQ, and NAVTEQ doesn’t recognize “Persian Gulf” at all, go to http://www.navteq.com and search “Persian Gulf” in the “Report map” , you’ll find nothing !

    More here: http://www.pgomag.com/index.php

    Romans are Romans, they hate us and fond of 2 languages, force, money, that’s it.

  6. Jd Webb says:

    This was interesting.

  7. Dr. Sheldon Cooper says:

    Dear Google,
    It has come to our attention that people in the gulf coast of US refer to the gulf of Mexico as Gulf of Texas – therefore, based on your policy, this body of water should be renamed immediately – WTF?!!!
    I expected more from Google – It started on a righteous path at its humble beginnings, but that is what happens when the companies grow and expand, Google has become greedy – for money, power and influence.
    You should get back to your roots Google boys…

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Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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