A grouse for Mr Biswas

Beyond Belief
May 15, 1998

This is a book," writes V. S. Naipaul, "about people. It is not a book of opinion. It is a book of stories." It is written with the liveliness of speech, in deceptively simple sentences. Naipaul travelled for five months in 1995 in four non-Arab Muslim countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran. He visited these lands in 1979 and recorded his impressions in Among the Believers. This new book is an account of his return there; sometimes he even meets the same people. He notes the tenaciousness of Islam as a framework of dogma and authoritative certainty.

Naipaul remains in the background; the people speak for themselves. He elicits carefully their stories and listens intelligently. Yet I still felt that he was the liberal writer travelling among the natives just to gather materials for his next book. There is many an opinionated hiatus in which Naipaul guides the reader to the author's preferred conclusion. So, it is a book full of opinions, expressed with effortless superiority, in which Naipaul's convictions are as deep as the ones he attacks. A standard political vocabulary is brought out as automatically as the cuckoo from the clock: "Islamic fanaticism", "Muslim aggressiveness", "Islamic fundamentalism".

The book is principally a record of Naipaul's journeys in Iran and Greater India, since Pakistan (the creation of which is dismissed as a blunder) was until 1947 politically part of India, and Malaysia and Indonesia were until 1400 culturally a portion of Greater India long before Europeans and Muslims arrived as competing imperialists. The people there were animist, Hindu (Naipaul's own background), Buddhist, all in easy cohabitation. Islam colonised India proper, then moved on to Greater India. Naipaul is angered by the ambitions of this "Arab imperialism" eager to raise its own flag on the far eastern frontier.

For the converted peoples, argues Naipaul, "only the sands of Arabia are sacred". Their own land and history are neglected in favour of an Arab tale of conquest. Islam is a disguised form of Arab imperialism. The natives are ashamed of themselves. In Pakistan, he finds that most people claim or invent Arab ancestors. Virtually no one is indigenous; the ancestors have all allegedly come from Iran and Arabia, from superior races. All disown India, the motherland. Even the nobility is ashamed of its origins: the nawab of Bahawalpur claims Arab lineage. The conquered peoples side with their conquerors and thus become honorary Arabs, the white men of the East.

In Sumatra he finds the land "as old as rice". But a mosque on the landscape proclaims an abrupt recent beginning to history. Naipaul is angry: the mosque stands there proudly "not to honour or claim the sacredness of the place, but to triumph over it". It is an attempt to erase the past; "the fundamentalist rage is against history". The bearded authorities want to turn people into transparent and pure vessels ready to receive a faith that grows out of nowhere, "a spiritual vacancy". But, concludes Naipaul, this fantasy of religious virginity is realisable, if at all, in small ancient tribal communities. The world has moved on.

The Arab imperialists are indeed guilty - but not guilty as charged by Naipaul. For one thing, Islam also sought to erase the Arab past, dubbing it the Age of Ignorance. For another, the Arabs are not the only colonialists around and not necessarily the worst ones. Arab conquest was an expressly religious movement coming on the heels of Muhammad's death and in professed obedience to scripture. The rulers settled among the vanquished nations; it was not a mercantile imperialism based at Mecca. By contrast, the universal expansion of European influence began at a stage when the restraining moral influence of Christianity was minimal. Europeans rarely settled in the lands they invaded; when they did, there were genocides. As Europeans left their former colonies, they often created synthetic nation-states ruled by a corrupt elite; the peoples were left impoverished and humiliated.

In any case, who are the "Arabians"? This vague word can intend a territory, a language, an ideology. I wonder how many of Naipaul's western readers will know that Arabs originally lived mainly in the Arabian peninsula, roughly the land now called Saudi Arabia. Other "Arab" lands, such as Egypt, Syria and Algeria, were subdued by the Muslim armies in the seventh century. In their eastern expansion, however, the Arabs failed fully to colonise the Persians, Indians and Malays. These peoples retained their languages and customs while adopting parts of Arab Islam. There are today virtually no racially pure Arabs of the type who incense Naipaul.

Iran is a case apart: a land committed to the cult of Shiism, a land with a proud past that even Islam has failed to erase. The last shah tried to introduce a calendar going back to Cyrus. He was not ashamed of Iran's glorious pagan past. Most Iranians are ambivalent towards the Arabs. Persia once challenged Greece and injured Rome but ironically Iranians, an Aryan nation, date their history by their defeat at the hands of Arabs, their conquerors and givers of the true faith. The Persians never forgave God for preferring the Arabs; indeed, Shiism is a Persian version of Arab Islam.

Naipaul finds it hard to re-enter the Iranian scene after 17 years and an Islamic revolution. He has missed out on the suffering. The post-revolutionary Iranians are indifferent; even the hotel porters are rude. No one here thinks that professional writers are necessarily remarkable men. He sees the ubiquitous slogan "Down with the USA", a nation with whom, he observes, most radicals make peace in later life. Kentucky Fried Chicken re-appears as Our Fried Chicken; the colonel's face has been smudged by vandals. He visits the holy city of Qum. While waiting in the lobby of the house of Ayatollah Khalkhalli, a prominent cleric whom he met in 1979, he happens on a rare photo of the late Ayatollah Khomeini smiling. It is a smile broad enough to be convincing; it "altered the face, stressed the sensuality". When Naipaul finally meets Khalkhalli, "the hanging judge", notorious for being liberal with the death penalty during the revolution, he is disappointed with the ayatollah's formality and secretiveness. The disappointment is mutual. Persian writers, boasts the ayatollah, wrote a hundred books and fathered a hundred children; Naipaul has a couple of dozen books and no children.

Naipaul interviews an ex-member of the Tudeh communist party, a disillusioned man trying to "make a cause out of his privacy, his family life". Both Islam and Marxism, Naipaul comments, strip people down to their essentials, removing what is human and particular, solely to preserve and exploit what is useful to the cause. Everyone is branded reactionary or revolutionary, righteous or wicked. Naipaul is unimpressed by the achievements of the Iranian revolution: only the range of pain has been extended.

Unlike his earlier travelogue, this book is totally uncharitable towards Islam and the Muslims. A complete way of life, he says, is merely a complete form of control. Islam, even in a country such as Malaysia, famed for its racially just policies, is really just a revenge fantasy. He watches a Malay man entertaining his child: "It was a form of display: simple things could be paraded as religious or virtuous acts". Muslims are thoughtless, devious, aggressive, irredeemable. To them, all subtlety is evil; even their thinkers are worthless. Islam is a patriarchal religion of foolish and inflexible dogmas. For believers, all is duty, and duty is performed without thought or introspection.

The attack continues. Islam is like a "very smooth and easy treadmill: it has kept the Muslim busy and went nowhere". The analogy is Naipaul's own but inspired by an encounter with an Indonesian preacher. Islam fails to enhance the humanity of Muslims. So what good is it? It is not a faith but a nuisance.

But this is to misunderstand the status of Islam in the lives of Muslims. Islam is seen as simply the most comprehensive container of all goodness, justice, truth and decency. It is a Muslim's final vocabulary. It stands for nothing in particular and everything in general. When the Iranians say that the best government is an Islamic government, they effectively say, tautologically, that the best government is the best government. Virtually all Muslims think that to vote for an Islamic state is simply to vote for justice and freedom. When Islamic activists condemn a Muslim government, the government responds by saying that the activists do not represent true Islam. They do not say that Islam does not represent true goodness.

In his earlier book, Naipaul occasionally conceded that Islam gave some aesthetic and moral beauty to Muslim lives. No such charity now. Islamic rituals provide only "constant personal theatre". He describes a Pakistani girl taking the purdah (veil): "Have you heard? Saleem's sister is thinking of going into purdah. She is going into purdah. She's gone into purdah."

Naipaul pontificates that feminine self-esteem is impossible in Islam. Muslim women are invisible victims, muffled up and out of sight. They are "the thin and dingy shadow people of every Pakistani household", passive victims of polygamy and its evils. The veil is "a simple form of self-suppression". In Iran, the women look like "monks of a service order". In Indonesia, the schoolgirls in groups look like "shoals of blanched big-headed tadpoles".

Naipaul does not care whether Muslims, even Muslim women, may see it all differently. Perhaps the veil is only an alternative style of beauty. It may be a symbol of seduction, not seclusion. The legal privileges for Muslim men are often formal, not always real. The actual balance of domestic power varies from family to family, culture to culture. There is no shortage of domineering Muslim women. The public face of Islam, as of all creeds, is a carefully crafted lie. But one does not expect a writer to find this out during a five-month journey.

Islam and communism, says Naipaul, merely console the harassed. Ideology is a hiding place. But so is talent, so is wealth; sex is a hiding-place too. Religious passion, he implies, sets up the Muslim for suffering, needless suffering. Not so. Life sets us all up for suffering; and it is not needless. It is a credit to the Muslims that they do not despair; they are not like Frank Sinatra who once said he would believe in anything that would get him through the night.

Naipaul repeats vigorously that the Muslims are fools for turning their backs on a necessary historical process. Fair enough. It is a fallow time for the community of Muhammad. They lack the energy to invent. So they fall back on the glories of a dead past. It is a shame. But if Islam is expected, rightly, to evolve, why should the certainties of liberalism remain forever fixed?

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples

Author - V. S. Naipaul
ISBN - 0 316 64361 0
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £20.00
Pages - 437

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