V S Naipaul

Last year, reading around a bit to try to come to grips with Islamic terrorism, and the mindset that drives it, I read Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Published in 1998, it’s a bit of a seqel to Among the Believers, which was written in the wake of Iran’s revolution of 1979 and published in 1981. My copy of Beyond Belief is dog-eared and underlined, marked up by the kind of active reading I did in grad school, but haven’t done much of since then. A lot of what Naipaul had to say made sense to me. His psychological explanations seemed to open a window into a subject that had been closed to me: not just terrorists and killers, but the people who support them, who venerate them.

Then I read around a bit more and found that Naipaul was regarded as cranky, a dilettante, and that most academic of putdowns – a travel writer. So mentally, I moved his insights into a different column. Anecdotal, interesting, not comprehensive or systematic. That’s part of the reason I haven’t blogged about him before.

A couple of weeks back, I picked up a different Naipaul book, A Turn in the South. The South, as in the southern United States, Dixie, the old Confederacy, and not incidentally my native region. Territory as treacherous and contentious as any in Islam. Layers of history, violence, war, slavery, occupation, poverty, and migration. And deep religiosity. Naipaul wanted to explain – or at least illuminate – the history of the South, both black and white. A tall order.

He starts in Atlanta, a city I knew well, and where I lived for three years in the period immediately after the time that Naipaul did his interviews there. Throughout the book, he talks to people I have either known at one remove, or might well have known. In the first chapter, he stays at the Ritz downtown, which I thought a funny place to get to know the real South, which to me is rural, agricultural at heart, and can only be understood by building on that base. Turns out he was making a metaphoric point about new money in Atlanta, how the city had grown and changed from its origins. Compare that with the only other lodging he mentions, the Ramada Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, a personality-free chain hotel on a highway. Says something about Jackson, too.

Naipaul gets an enormous amount right. I think he does better on the white than on the black, but coming as close as he does is a substantial achievement. He’s up front about his limitations, too.

“Music and community, and tears and faith: I felt that I had been taken, through country music, to an understanding of a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States.”

I don’t know why he never imagined a whole distinctive culture existing in the US, but I’m glad that he could overcome that prejudice, and make that admission. The book also has occasional show-stopping revelations that could only come from Naipaul’s Indian, Caribbean, English melange of experiences.

“The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.”

Naipaul is, in short, a very reliable guide for an outsider in very charged and difficult terrain. I not only recognized my native land in his description, I learned about it as well. I hope to write more here of his take on Islam – for Europe faces few challenges greater than understanding and coming to terms with contempoary Islam – and I think Naipaul’s two books are not a bad place to start.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

14 thoughts on “V S Naipaul

  1. naipaul is a racist hindu fanatic, plain and simple. he talks all this b.s. about how “evil” and “weird” islam is, how it “ruins” its followers, but he also supported the BJP in tearing down the Babri Masjid and he called their act of vandalism an act of creativity. he believes in erasing islam from india. basically, he’s just a good writer who still holds a grudge against islam (some indians can’t accept that their north of their territories were dominated by islam for a few centuries in the middle to late middle ages), and he wants to wipe out islam, and he’s found a favorable condition for that

    both his books on islam are childish and immature. if he hits the mark, fine, but what’s behind the blows? consider his perspective on hindu fundamentalism before issuing forth such a laudatory post.

  2. dear doug,

    i agree with naipaul’s analysis of the dangers of islamic fundamentalism. ultimately, however, this is a baseless analysis, because as haroon says above, naipaul is a fanatic. he hates islamic fundamentalism because it’s just like his own. islamic fundamentalism is obsessed with perceived and actual muslim weaknesses, especially compared to the past, and how islamic momentum has been “stolen” by an ascendant western world.

    many hindus blame islam for keeping india down, though of course this doesn’t analyze the simple fact that: if india was indeed “kept down” — and that is very, very debatable, as who would consider the taj mahal a sign of being kept down? (naipaul in fact does: he hates the taj mahal) — then something kept it down. that you do not mention this explains clearly what muslims have been so irked about all along. only their fundamentalism is paid attention to. the united statess’ sanctions on iraq have killed more people than islamic terrorism has in the last 30 years together, yet who claims the US is a great danger to the world (other than so many muslims, peaceful or not).

    here are some quotes re: naipaul, from the article Naipual’s Middle Passage to India, Sagarika Ghose:

    1. “On the one hand, he states that the BJP movement is a ?movement from the earth?, that the destruction of the Babri masjid was a manifestation of ?Hindu awakening?.”

    2. “Sir Vidia believes there can be no ?return to the past?. Yet he also celebrates India?s return to the past. He believes firmly in the BJP, but he doesn?t tell us how he is going to safeguard his views from becoming an apologia for the VHP mob. At the recent Bharatiya Pravasi Divas celebrations he thundered that Indians must shed their sense of victimhood. But in A Wounded Civilisation, he had written that unless Indians wake up to a racial sense, of a sense of being a single race against other races, it will be calamitous for India.

    3. “He believes ?inherently fanatical? Islam was the greatest calamity to befall India yet says nothing on contemporary Hindu fanaticism. He urges the intelligentsia to reclaim Hindutva from the mob, but has no ideas on how this can be done.”

    He is a great writer, do not get me wrong. But he is also an apologist for terrorist thought-processes, his hatred for the islamic variety no different than a member of Gush Emumim’s views would be towards, say, Palestinian Islamic movements in their totality.

    If you can read Naipaul’s analysis of Islam in this light, you have a better perspective. Even then, he overwhelmingly contradicts himself in his books…

  3. I agree. I find his description of Iran, as a society riven by the discontinuity between its more purely Persian and Zoroastrian antiquity and an Arabized Islamic present incompatible for its past, to be disturbing. One could as easily borrow his arguments to suggest a gap between Germany’s pagan past and its Christian present. Given his support for Hindutva, this can readily lend itself to all sorts of nasty things.

    That said, he is a keen observer. You just have to read him critically.

  4. There was an article by William Dalrymple on Naipaul’s attitude to Islam in the Guardian’s Review section Saturday before last.

    VS Naipaul caused controversy in Delhi recently when he apparently endorsed the ruling Hindu nationalist party. While his credentials as a writer are unchallenged, argues William Dalrymple, his historical grasp is less sure, marred by a grave failure to recognise Islam’s contribution to India

  5. More to the point, IMO Naipaul is all too ready to translate bad things which may have been done by individual Muslims to individual Hindus in the past to a justification for current indiscriminate actions against Muslims in the Republicof India nowadays.

  6. Naipaul says what is quite obvious: Islam is inherently imperialistic. According to him, Islam has done more to wipe out indigenous cultures than western imperialism ever has, considering its totalitarian mission.

    Naipaul irritates Muslim intellectuals (and their French sycophants) because he is not quick enough to denounce the west for the shortcomings of Islamic civilization. This, in the end, is quite laudable: it’s about time Muslims heard another side of the story – from a non-western source – instead of accepting without question the standard party line of the state-sponsored Muslim media apparatus.

  7. Naipaul says what is quite obvious: Islam is inherently imperialistic. According to him, Islam has done more to wipe out indigenous cultures than western imperialism ever has, considering its totalitarian mission.

    Oh, Lord. Religious conversion is inherently massively intrusive into the lives of cultures subjected to conversion, whether we’re talking about Germans at the hands of Christians in the 8th century, Persians at the hands of Muslims at the same time, or (now) tribals at the hands of Hindutva activists. The arguments that he uses can just as readily be used to condemn the conversion of Germanic peoples to Christianity; which, given his Hindutva sympathies and the origins of the Hindutva movement in part in Naziism, which generally felt that way about these conversions, gives an idea as to his political orientation. Interesting writer; good observer, though you have to take his writing critically; bad political or cultural theorist.

    Naipaul irritates Muslim intellectuals (and their French sycophants) because he is not quick enough to denounce the west for the shortcomings of Islamic civilization.

    No. Naipaul’s problem is that he positions Muslims firstly as inherently evil by virtue of their civilization, secondly as inherently deluded by virtue of ancient conversions. It’s sloppy thinking.

    This, in the end, is quite laudable: it’s about time Muslims heard another side of the story – from a non-western source – instead of accepting without question the standard party line of the state-sponsored Muslim media apparatus.

  8. “One could as easily borrow his arguments to suggest a gap between Germany’s pagan past and its Christian present. ”

    Gee, I seem to remember something exactly along those lines happening in Germany in the 1930’s. Something involving racial purity and Wagnerian opera and mass rallies. Of course it all ended in tears, and have you considered that maybe it is the consequence of that ending in tears that rendered the split no longer quite so visible?

  9. islam is inherently imperialistic? more than the west? Hmm. islam has had its share of ugly histories and ugly movements, old and new, but… uh… as i recall, i cannot trace many genocides to islam’s golden age. however, living in the united states, i do recall that white people were not the first ones here, though the natives seem to have gone missing. many of my australian, new zealander and latin american acquaintances suggest similar experiences, if to varying degrees.

    do you remember what happened to the jews in spain? or the moors? do you remember where went the arabs of sicily, or the bosniaks in central europe? there has been terrorism, racism and fanaticism on both sides, and i think the world’s most aggressive societies have been the western and the islamic. perhaps a reason we cannot stand one another so often: we are all too similar. maybe westerners have been more violent because they industrialized, and became more technologically sophisticated, and therefore, their atrocities stand out more. though there have also been muslim peoples committing, or attempting, genocides and ethnic cleansing…

    naipaul is pointing out the obvious and claiming expertise in doing so. big whoop.

  10. Gee, I seem to remember something exactly along those lines happening in Germany in the 1930’s. Something involving racial purity and Wagnerian opera and mass rallies. Of course it all ended in tears, and have you considered that maybe it is the consequence of that ending in tears that rendered the split no longer quite so visible?

    Actually, the thing is that the split in Germany’s case didn’t exist. For as long as Germany has been a literate nation, it’s been a Christian nation. Using Naipaul’s principle, if the Germans felt fundamentally aggrieved, then the Scandinavians should have been positively outraged by the intrusion of Christianity–they had their own distinct non-Christian civilization, after all.

    And yet, nothing.

    Naipaul’s argument is fundamentally nativistic and self-serving. It assumes that cultures must be static, at least when they represent some ideal he likes (a Hindu Pakistan, for instance), and that any change (away from this norm) will supposedly create a profound psychosis within a culture. His support for the Hindutva movement, as a fundamentally energizing and dynamic movement, must be seen in this light. It’s particularly suspicious since he mainly ascribes alienation from the outside in Among the Believers, at least after what I recall from reading it. Methinks his agenda colours his research.

  11. Is Naipaul doing anything other than applying to the Islamic world the postcolonial critique usually applied to the West?

    The following passage is from the Guardian article linked to above.[T]he Hindu kings of Vijayanagar appeared in public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India, but dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume – the Islamic inspired kabayi, a long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba, symbolic, according to [respected American Sanskrit scholar Philip B] Wagoner, of “their participation in the more universal culture of Islam”.If Dalrymple had made comparable comments about the West, for example, by replacing the kabayi with a three piece suit and referring to the “more universal culture of the West,” he would have been shat upon from a great height as an apologist for cultural imperialism.

  12. shat upon? maybe in your world, but certainly not in any i know. have you ever engaged with the dominant islamist groups in egypt, turkey and the like? these groups are full of businessmen perfectly comfortable with speaking english, teaching english and wearing western dress. that has stopped to be an issue except for the fundo marginalized, whom nobody really wants to listen to, except for the fact that they’ve learned how to blow lots of people up

    otherwise, the argument over the “imperialism” of western dress is not quite as potent as you make it out to be.

  13. My argument is not about the “imperialism” of western dress.

    My point is that if someone had described Western culture as “more universal” than an indigenous culture (as Dalrymple describes Islamic culture), if someone had written about Western influence on the cultures of developing countries as favorably as Dalrymple writes about Islamic influence in India, he would be attacked as a cultural imperialist.

  14. “Naipaul says what is quite obvious: Islam is inherently imperialistic. According to him, Islam has done more to wipe out indigenous cultures than western imperialism ever has, considering its totalitarian mission.

    Naipaul irritates Muslim intellectuals (and their French sycophants) because he is not quick enough to denounce the west for the shortcomings of Islamic civilization. This, in the end, is quite laudable: it’s about time Muslims heard another side of the story – from a non-western source – instead of accepting without question the standard party line of the state-sponsored Muslim media apparatus.”

    Well said. The comments critiquing you actually make your point. There is this immediate demand to denounce western civilization in stronger terms, as if one cant critique Islam’s reign of terror in India and other places on its own terms. What intellectual dhimmitude!

    This seems to be due to historical ignorance, eg, “i cannot trace many genocides to islam’s golden age” is refuted by 1400 years of such events:
    http://www.carpenoctem.tv/military/tamerlane.html
    Tamarlane’s genocide in northern India
    http://www.cilicia.com/armo10c-mr191507a.html
    The term “Jihad” used in the genocide of Christians in mideast in 1915-1920.
    http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/cgi-bin/amazon/apf2.cgi?input_item=0838636888&input_search_type=AsinSearch
    Books : The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude: Seventh-Twentieth Century …
    “The reader of this work must gird his loins as he learns of the persistent genocide throughout history of non-Muslims, which evil deeds go on even to this day (eg, against the Lebanese Christians). Of course, the same goes for Jews as well as all other non-Muslim religions. We learn from history here unveiled for Western eyes for the first time that, excepting only the Arabian Peninsula itself, the rest of the Middle East was originally (ie pre-Muhammed) non-Arab and pre-dominantly Christian, with large minorities of Jews as well as Zoroastrians, et al. These non-Muslim populations were brutally murdered (often with the women and children sold as slaves) and then the lands re-populated with Arab Muslims! This includes Palestine itself.”
    http://www.copts.net/index.asp
    Historical info on the copts of Egypt and persecution today.

    Yes, there are different voices/stories than these, and yes other cultures are agressive, but there is a fundamental truth about historial Islam that Naipaul reports.

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