Idea Of The Day

Naipaul’s Islam

V.S. Naipaul#2:}} has been awarded this year’s Nobel prize for literature—for his fiction, however, not for his more contentious travel writing, which includes two books about Islam, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. As the Los Angeles Times reports: “Horace Engdahl, head of the academy, acknowledged that the choice of Naipaul might be regarded as political in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and subsequent U.S.-British retaliation. ‘I don’t think we will have violent protests from the Islamic countries,’ Engdahl said in Stockholm, ‘and if they take the care to read his travel books from that part of the world, they will realize that his view of Islam is a lot more nuanced.’ “

Naipaul summarized that more nuanced view in an interview published by the Guardian. Islam, he said, “has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say ‘my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn’t matter.’ … This abolition of the self demanded by Muslims was worse than the similar colonial abolition of identity. It is much, much worse in fact. … You cannot just say you came out of nothing.”

According to David Brooks, Naipaul’s view “helps us understand bin Laden. He and his followers have mutilated themselves, by destroying all but one of their cultural inheritances. They believe in only one history, and it was defined and perfected long ago. Everything since is decline. In bin Laden’s crackpot version of history, everything since the decline of the Ottoman empire and its alleged greatness is an additional outrage and insult to God.”

Edward Said and Fouad Ajami are more critical of the writer. Naipaul, in Said’s opinion, was “considered a master novelist [in the West] and an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy of the Third World, [yet] in the post-colonial world he’s a marked man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him.” Ajami suggests that Naipaul has misjudged Islam. “He journeyed into a great storm, his own panic about political Islam magnifying the panic that he found on the road. This knowledgeable man had left home unprepared. He had read little about these countries; instead he put his faith in his own inclinations.”