Notes of a Skeptical Infidel

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 26, 2003 | Destinations: Indonesia / Malaysia / Iran / Pakistan / Kuala Lumpur / Jakarta / Islamabad / Tehran

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Review of V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, First Vintage Books, 1982.

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Every day I hear the muezzin's call to prayer stirring the Muslim faithful of Phuket, Thailand. My house is equidistant from a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque. The Muslim women wear head coverings, some black, some multi-colored, and occasionally all but the eyes of a woman is covered by a black burqah, a trap for the relentless rays of the tropical sun. The men wear their flat caps. Green and white, crescent and star - all the symbols of this desert religion are found here in the jungle.

When we think of Islam we are not liable to think of Southeast Asia first, even though the region is home to the Islamic world's most populous country, Indonesia. Malaysia and Brunei are Islamic, and every Southeast Asian nation has pockets of the faith. Islam has been flung this far through the conquest and missionary work that has made it the world's second largest, fastest growing, and possibly least understood religion.

Over twenty years ago, Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul undertook a journey to four Muslim countries - Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It was a critical time in the history of fundamentalist Islam. Earlier, an American coup had toppled Iran's democratically elected government and replaced it with the Shah. He was deposed, and in his place was erected a theocracy headed up by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Muslim world trembled at the Iranian revolution, because it seemed to provide an alternative to the two dominant powers of the time - Communism and the West. A nation could be founded on a book, the Koran, or so it seemed. Naipaul's question is whether the alternative is realistic. His answer is no. His many reasons are all the more convincing for having come, as it were, straight from the mullah's mouth. Naipaul is troubled first of all by Islam's attempt to use religion as a solution to plainly economical and political problems. The economy is a disaster? Then usury should be banned - because the Koran says so. There is too much crime? Then adulterers should be stoned to death and thieves maimed - because the Koran says so. If only the Koran were applied in every instance (supposing it could be), then all would be well; heaven and earth would be one. Naipaul finds this view touching at times, but ultimately naove and confused.

Much of the impetus behind fundamentalist Islam is a rejection of the West - of democracy, technology, capitalism, and liberty. But the rejection, Naipaul notes, is only emotional, and much of it turns on one issue: the status of women. Muslims spread anti-West messages, but the messages quote Western writers - Schumacher, Toynbee - and they are spread using Western technology - tape recorders, megaphones. Many West-haters have been educated in Western universities; the Pakistani economy is addicted to remittances from workers abroad; other Muslim countries would be poor without oil. Iran Week looks like Newsweek; "Bubble Up" is Pakistan's answer to the soft drink Seven-Up.

Naipaul cannot tolerate this hypocrisy and mimicry. The relationship of fundamentalist Islam to the West is parasitic and ultimately self-defeating, he says. "All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. Rejection, therefore, is not absolute rejection. It is also, for the community as a whole, a way of ceasing to strive intellectually."

The author is at his skeptical best when he employs the Socratic method, that cornerstone of Western thought. Merely by asking questions, he shows up the inconsistencies underlying the beliefs of the devout. His questions are usually impartial, if persistent. But occasionally his Western bias bubbles up to the surface, as does the notorious Naipaul temper.

Naipaul must always be read with his personal history in mind. From humble origins, he worked hard, went to Oxford, gained fame and fortune. But he uses the fallacy of universal generalization, the folly of all successful men: I did it, so everyone can. Thus, Muslim nations are backward because of lack of effort, and they embrace Islam because praying is easier than learning, raging than working, razing than building. Reflecting on a Pakistani government decree that work cease during prayers, Naipaul writes: "In the courts, not especially active that morning, the azan seemed less a call to prayer than a signal to people who were not doing much to do absolutely nothing."

Elsewhere, Naipaul has suggested that Islam's influence on former Western colonies has been far more destructive than colonialism was. This view is not popular among those who reflexively blame the white man for all ills, but history may favor it. The colonizers stole, but they also built. Islam destroys what had been built -- systems of law and transport and communication, the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, even portions of one's own population but replaces it "with nothing." Fundamentalist Islam attempts to erase the past in much the same way that Communism attempted to do so. The Koran is Mao's Little Red Book; the Islamic state is akin to the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero"; and the target of the Muslim missionaries is the same as that of the Communist cadres: the poor, angry, dispossessed, ignorant. "Now," writes Naipaul, "they have a weapon: Islam. It is their way of getting even with the world. It serves their grief, their feeling of inadequacy, their social rage and racial hate." Like Communism, Islam is "little more than the poor teaching the poor to be poor." Naipaul could have been writing of Kampuchea when he wrote of an Islamic school in Indonesia: "Such effort, such organization, to duplicate the village atmosphere, to teach villagers to be villagers!"

But neither Islamic fundamentalism nor Communism arose out of a vacuum. Both are responses to a breakdown of traditional ways - a breakdown caused in part by colonialism and the rapid technological advances brought in its wake. For example, a new strain of rice is introduced into Indonesia that grows twice as fast as the old. This disrupts the harvest-based festivals. The old ways die, and Islam swoops in like a vulture to feed on the remains. It may be said indeed that fundamentalism of any kind is a reaction to a perceived chaos, and will recur whenever and wherever chaos seems to reign. It replaces thought with rules, change with immobility, and reason with dogma. It places an immovable object in the way of an irresistible force.

This is the paradox that will shape history for some time to come - the opposition that Benjamin Barber calls "Jihad vs. McWorld." Naipaul's book remains an essential and eminently reasonable account of one side of this conflict, but it gives us no idea how the conflict could be resolved. Reason does wonders in the resolution of reasonable conflicts. Against unreasonable faith, reason has little power.

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