Circumnavigating Islam

Judith Gabriel

 Many Arab intellectuals responded to the awarding of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature to V. S. Naipaul with dismay. Criticism of the Trinidad-born British writer, an often abrasive chronicler of the postcolonial Third World who has long argued that Islam has been as "calamitous" for the world as imperialism, is nothing new, but the timing of the prize opened the floodgates of speculation and debate.

Coming just one month after the attack on the World Trade Center, in the midst of hawkish rhetoric and growing prejudice against Muslims or anyone dark and swarthy enough to look "Middle Eastern," some saw the prize announcement as rewarding Naipaul for his criticism of Islam by giving him the highest Western stamp of literary approval. Despite avowals that the ensuing U.S. "war against terrorism" was not part of a Crusader siege against Islam, the timing of the award struck many as more than coincidental.

"A critic of Islam wins Nobel Prize," read a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the first paragraph, the article described Naipaul as "the Trinidadian-born British writer whose books bristle with stinging critiques of post-colonial and Islamic societies - and who in turn is often denounced by Third World, Islamic, and leftist critics as a reactionary, imperialist Anglophile."

Naipaul, widely considered to be England 's greatest living writer, is also one of its most controversial. Long a critic of colonialism and its impact on the colonized, he has drawn ire for his displays of disdain for the societies and cultures of the Third World which he believes are not well-adapted to the modern world. This stance has drawn persistent charges that he is a racist - charges he denies, although he readily admits that he doesn't mind at all being regarded as a provocative figure. "If a writer doesn't generate hostility, he is dead," he told Adam Shatz in The New York Times Magazine.

Nonetheless, Naipaul spent more than 25 years languishing on the short list of Nobel candidates. His finally being picked - in the wake of Sept. 11 - raised pointed questions about the timing of the award, particularly among editors and intellectuals in the Arab world. Many reacted with consternation and uneasiness, seeing the awarding of the prize - which this year pays $943,000 - to Naipaul as dignifying an anti-Islamic worldview Al Ahram literary critic Sanaa Selaiha declared that Naipaul had "attacked Islam and so won this year's Nobel Prize." Writing in Al Hayat, Abduh Wazzen noted, Even though some critics and journalists considered Naipaul a champion of the Third World, others considered him an opponent of this world and its causes. Some writers even described him as an author of racist views which are indistinguishable from 'anti-Semitic views,' accusing him of offending Islam, and considered his award today, in the midst of the war between the U.S. and its allies and Islamic terrorism, as a service provided by the Swedish Academy to the American regime - and something that resembles the role played by CNN in promoting the American perspective on the current situation."

Some deemed the prize another round from the Anglo-American arsenal directed at Arabs and Muslims, in a backlash emanating from the Sept. 11 attacks but harkening back to centuries-old vitriol toward Islam. One writer went so far as to pose the question, "Did Osama bin Laden win the Nobel Prize for literature?" Elias Khoury, writing in An Nahar Literary Supplement, explained that when he first learned Naipaul had won the prize, "I could not see before me anything except the face of Osama bin Laden, as if the preacher of the Afghan cave were the winner of the prize. For without him and his fundamentalist discourse, and the anxiety which dominates the Western world after Sept. 11, the members of the Academy would not have remembered a writer who entered a state of decline and obscurity a decade ago. But Osama on his horse reminded the Western world of the old dormant hatred against Islam and the Arabs, and thus the prize came as a part of the British-American military campaign on Afghanistan, supporting the Orientalist-mythical vision which doesn't see in the Arab and the Islamic world anything but backwardness and apathy." By awarding Naipaul the prize, Khoury added, the Swedish Academy "established the discourse of Sheikh Osama as representative of the voice of Islam and Muslims."

In the wake of the Nobel announcement, the 48 member states of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, based in Rabat , fired off a letter to the Swedish Academy accusing Naipaul of "willfully distorting realities and facts of religion, history, and civilization, placing him in the ranks of biased writers." The letter-writers protested that they found the selection to be "completely unfair," and that it "carries a deliberate intent to cause harm to Islamic culture and civilization, particularly at this juncture that is characterized by active propaganda mounted against Islam by hostile quarters."

The Swedish Academy, which lauded Naipaul in its Nobel citation for the "perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny" he brings to his subjects, denied that they had considered anything but literary merit in awarding the prize. Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the 215-year-old academy that selects the winners, conceded that Naipaul's selection might well be seen as a political, but insisted that the choice is always based on literary criteria. Engdahl was quoted in The Guardian as saying that what Naipaul is really attacking in Islam "is a particular trait that it has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along, that it tends to obliterate the preceding culture." Engdahl added that those who read Naipaul's travel books will "realize that his view of Islam is a lot more nuanced."

But others point out that the Nobel Committee has often been political. Jason Cowley, literary editor of New Statesman, wrote: "Though the Nobel Committee is renowned for making political decisions, such as awarding the prize to Nadine Gordimer shortly after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, it is safe to say that had Naipaul espoused liberal sentiments, he would have won the prize much sooner. His honor is overdue, and purely on literary terms."

Outsider in the West

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932 in Trinidad, where his Indian forefathers had been taken as indentured workers. In 1950, at the age of 18, he immigrated to England, where he has written 25 books of fiction and nonfiction and was knighted for his "services to literature" in 1990. Sir Vidia's celebrated novels include "A House for Mr. Biswas" and "A Bend in the River." Although a decade ago he proclaimed the death of the novel as a genre, his latest one was released just as the Nobel was being announced. "Half a Life" is about the journey of a man from India who emigrates to England and later Africa. His non-fiction works include his travel books; these contain his most critical assessments of Muslim fundamentalism in non-Arab countries like Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan.

Two travel books contain much of Naipaul's critical observations of life in Islamic countries. The first, "Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey," was published in 1981. It is the product of Naipaul's extensive travels in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, and in it he examined the growing hold of Islam as "a complete way of life." He observed that its adherents were selectively forgetting the past. Through the words and deeds of hundreds of contacts, Naipaul demonstrated this Muslim world's search for an alternative to the West.

Naipaul revisited those same places in 1995, finding a far more strident Islam. "Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples," published in 1998, is the result of his second excursion. In the book's prologue he maintains that his interview subjects were freely expressing themselves and describes his own role as merely that of a "manager of narratives." Although he maintained that he had written a "book about people . . . not a book of opinion," critics have found no dearth of the latter.

In "Beyond Belief," Naipaul depicts, through his subjects' voices, an Islam that makes "imperial demands" in these countries that have crossed over or converted to Islam from their original beliefs. He writes that in the process, the converted peoples have become beholden to a foreign culture - i.e. the Arab - in a way that has repercussions on the societal and individual psyche: "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 converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil."

It is not difficult to understand why Arabs would be upset at his use of a broad and historically questionable brush. "He seems not to know that, in today's world, the term 'Arab' merely describes someone whose native language is Arabic," writes Nikki R. Keddie, professor of Middle Eastern history at UCLA, in a Los Angeles Times review of the book. "Most Arabs are not descended from the earliest Arab Muslims from Arabia , as he seems to think, but rather from converts among other peoples in the Middle East . Even the early Arabs of the peninsula were converts. Many customs and laws of pre-Islamic peoples from the Middle East and further afield entered into...Islam." Terming Naipaul's portraits as "fatally skewed," Keddie concludes that the author shows such "disdain for historical accuracy that it undermines one's confidence in Naipaul's judgments."

Long a critic of Naipaul, Edward Said, Palestinian American literary critic known for his seminal work "Orientalism," believes that Naipaul has long played a role in creating "general hostility towards Islam" in Western societies. "In the post-colonial world he's marked as a purveyor of stereotypes and of disgust for the world that produced him - although that doesn't exclude people thinking he's a gifted writer," Said once wrote, noting that in the West, Naipaul is "considered a master novelist and an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy of the Third World."

Said blasted "Beyond Belief," calling it an "intellectual catastrophe of the first order." In Al Ahram shortly after the book was first published in 1998, Said asked "how could a man of such intelligence and gifts as V. S. Naipaul write so stupid and so boring a book, full of story after story illustrating the same primitive, rudimentary, unsatisfactory, and reductive thesis, that most Muslims are converts and must suffer the same fate wherever they are. Never mind history, politics, philosophy, geography: Muslims who are not Arabs are inauthentic converts, doomed to this wretched false destiny. Somewhere along the way, Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over."

In the wake of the criticism that emerged after Naipaul won the Nobel Prize, his Muslim wife, to whom he had dedicated "Beyond Belief," challenged her husband's detractors. According to The London Telegraph, Pakistani journalist Nadira Khannum Alvi defended her husband and asked what the detractors knew of modern Islam and how it was used in "tyrannies like Pakistan ."

Others point out that Naipaul is not only critical of Islam. Swedish writer and Academy board member Per Wastberg told Reuters, "If you follow the whole oeuvre of Naipaul, he is very critical of all religions. He considers religion as the scourge of humanity, which dampens down our fantasies and our lust to think and experiment." Furthermore, he is critical of all forms of imperialism. Praising his "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories," the Swedish Academy citation singled out Naipaul's 1987 masterpiece "The Enigma of Arrival," in which he writes about England "like an anthropologist studying some hitherto unexplored native tribe deep in the jungle" and creates an image of "the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighborhoods." Calling Naipaul a "literary circumnavigator," the Academy citation also noted that he was "only ever really at home in himself." In that solitary identity, he has moved as a perpetual outsider in the West, writing what he sees and hears, knowing full well that what he says will convey some of his own worldly discomfort.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).

Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid

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