Beyond Belief – V.S. Naipaul
Interviewed by David Barsamian
V.S. Naipaul was born of Indian ancestry in Trinidad in 1932 and emigrated to England in 1950, where he has lived since. He's a much-heralded novelist. Two of his novels were recently listed among the "100 Best" of the century. He has been knighted. He also writes non-fiction. In 1981, he wrote Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, which according to his publisher received universal acclaim. In 1995, Naipaul traveled to Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia. His latest book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, is his account of those travels. In his prologue, Naipaul says,
Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of the converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.
What is your take on Naipaul's assessment?
I think you have put your finger on the problem by quoting at some length the introductory paragraph of Beyond Belief. The central thesis is that Islam in the countries he visited is Islam of converted people. He calls Islam "an Arab religion." Everyone who is not an Arab is a convert to Islam. A convert's view is distorted and nihilistic. It produces disturbances; it's a condition of neurosis. So, the central thesis rests on the impact of conversion on the converted. Throughout this book, Naipaul identifies a problem in Pakistan or in Malaysia and says it exists because the people were converts to Islam. At one point, for example, he describes quite correctly how some of the greatest historical monuments in one of the oldest cities in Pakistan, Lahore, have been criminally neglected. He describes the neglect and he asks how can a people allow Versailles-like structures to be so neglected? Clearly it is because these people have no relationship to their history. Converts don't care about the past. That's his conclusion. But it's an unfortunate fact that historical monuments are being neglected in India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Jordan, Africa, Latin America, and all over the world. They're even neglected in many European countries and in America. What does that have to do with converts? There's that problem. His central thesis is wrong.
There is a second problem that is even greater. Who is not a convert? By the definition he is giving, if Iranians are converted Muslims and Americans are converted Christians, the Japanese and large numbers of Chinese are converted Buddhists. Everybody is converted because every great religious system has had only a few followers at the beginning. Given that, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, especially all the prophetic religions, developed through conversion and have produced an entirely distorted humanity. In that sense, his organizing thesis should not exclude anyone. You are wasting time.
V.S. Naipaul is a man haunted by imagined, created ghosts. None of his ghosts are actually real. They haunt him in very unexpected ways. In this book, for example, it's about Islam. But suddenly, in the chapter on Pakistan, he spends the major portion of it on a particular person whom I'll discuss in a moment, a character he calls Shabaz. Here is a British-educated young Pakistani who discovers Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and, above all, Che Guevara, while studying at Oxford and Cambridge. He returns home and - like young people of that generation in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or America - he joins a leftist group and ultimately a leftist armed uprising in Baluchistan. Naipaul goes into very great detail of this person's narrative. He makes him look like some sort of a distortion. At the moment, I'm not debating with you or telling you whether this person is a distortion or not. But that's how Shabaz looks as he goes through this rigamarole of a leftist uprising that doesn't work. His friends die and he goes back to normal life.
Nowhere is there any suggestion in this entire chapter that Shabaz was a believing Muslim, that Islam had any role in his life, his education, or his thinking, or had any role in the narrative on which Naipaul is spending thirty-five pages. He comes in for only one reason. Shabaz appears because Naipaul is haunted by his hatred of everything leftist. He finds an opportunity to discover his ghost. As soon as he discovers his ghost, whether it fits his narrative or not, he vomits out his fears, hatred, and disgust.
There is another aspect to this, which is rather typical of this type of Orientalist, racist scholarship. That is, Naipual cannibalizes his friends. The Shabaz of his book is a man who is my friend, Ahmed Rashid. He took Naipaul as a personal guest during his six-week visit to Pakistan, showed him around, and introduced him to a myriad of people, including me. Ahmed was generous to a fault. He dropped a lot of other things he was doing to help Naipaul in his work. Naipaul has repaid him by writing a caricature. He changed his name but only in such a way that every educated Pakistani would recognize Ahmed Rashid in that book and will pity him for having befriended this cannibal of a man.
Naipaul is, and it doesn't please me to say so, a very sick man. This book is actually beyond belief, perhaps because it's a book driven by ghosts. Islam is one of his ghosts. He's like Captain Ahab.