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By John Wilson

Beyond Belief?

Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism.

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As winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, V.S. Naipaul has many claims on our attention. Here we take up only one: Naipaul's treatment of religion.

In his 1981 book, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, his 1998 book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Conquered Peoples, and many other writings, Naipaul has issued some of the most unsparing accounts of the contemporary Islamic world anywhere on record. "I was interested in these convert societies," Naipaul said in an August 2001 interview in the Literary Review. In Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan, he says, "history now begins in Arabia. It's as though they have no history before the coming of Islam." Nor does Naipaul limit himself to Islam's modern face. He has said that centuries of Muslim rule crushed India's Hindu civilization.

The Reuters story reporting Naipaul's Nobel discreetly avoided any mention of Islam. "Naipaul's views of religion"—note the generic term—"have raised some eyebrows," Reuters said:

"If you follow the whole oeuvre of Naipaul, he is very critical of all religions," Academy board member Per Wastberg told Reuters. "He considers religion as the scourge of humanity, which dampens down our fantasies and our lust to think and experiment."

In fact, as we'll see, Naipaul's view of religion is more complex than Wastberg suggests. But the missing subtext in the Reuters story is Naipaul's scathing critique of Islam. The timing of the award has suggested to many observers that the Nobel committee chose to honor Naipaul (long regarded as a strong candidate for the prize) this year in response to the events of September 11. At the same time, Wastberg's comments and remarks by other committee members indicate that the Swedish Academy wants to send a nuanced message, not singling out Islam for criticism by honoring Naipaul.

"What he's really attacking in Islam," said Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the academy, is a particular trait that it has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along, that it tends to obliterate the preceding cultures. 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."

Conservative American commentators have often applauded Naipaul. Last week, following the Nobel Prize announcement, David Brooks of The Weekly Standard posted a piece titled "The Closing of the Islamic Mind." Brooks praised Naipaul and provided a link to a 1990 lecture in which Naipaul contrasts the single-minded, exclusivist faith he encountered in the Islamic world with what he calls "our universal civilization," which seeks to "accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of the world's thought."

"The style of religion he found," Brooks says of Naipaul's travels among Muslims, "was a complete way of life." Brooks simply takes it for granted that his readers will agree with him: this is a Bad Thing. "I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith," Naipaul says in the lecture. "I was among people who wanted to be pure."

Hence Naipaul is considerably more tolerant of Hinduism, for example, or of the indigenous religions of Africa than of faiths with the claims of Islam (or Christianity). "The missionary who wants to convert [Africans] to a revealed religion," he says in the Literary Review interview, "is arrogant and destructive. I am interested in this ancient thing from the earth."

Clearly this is a long way from the blanket contempt for "religion" that Wastberg attributes to Naipaul. Nevertheless Naipaul emphasizes repeatedly in his writings that he is not a believer of any stripe. Sometimes he puts this as a matter of temperament, but on other occasions he suggests a hierarchy of values in which the unbeliever is one who has evolved beyond the restrictive horizons of belief:

I began to understand what people in Pakistan meant when they told me that Islam was a complete way of life, affecting everything; I began to understand that—although it might be said that we had shared a common subcontinental origin—I had traveled a different way. I began to formulate the idea of the universal civilization—which, growing up in Trinidad, I had lived in or been part of without quite knowing that I did so.

Naipaul goes on to explain how, "in exchange" for the "rituals and the myths" of his Hindu grandparents, he "had been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship."

In short, Naipaul is an exemplary Modern Intellectual, one who has transcended the claims of any particularistic faith. The universal civilization he embraces draws on many sources—prominently including, for instance, "the Christian precept, Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. There was no such human consolation in the Hinduism I grew up with, and—though I have never had any religious faith—the simple idea was, and is, dazzling to me, perfect as a guide to human behavior." Another key value of the universal civilization is "the idea of the pursuit of happiness. … It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away."

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