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Monday, December 15, 2008

A Gothic Tale: “Muslims” and V.S. Naipaul by Wendy O'Shea-Meddour

V. S. Naipaul’s travel book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Amongst the Converted Peoples (1998), is set in the non-Arab Muslim world and based on five months of travel in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. It is the follow up to Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and charts a return voyage in which the narrator goes looking ‘for people from the past’ (p. 153). Unsurprisingly, it is impossible to reconcile the conflicting critical responses that Naipaul’s ‘Islamic excursions’ have received. Critics that are left wing, liberal or anti-imperialist in outlook have condemned Naipaul for his neo-imperialist attitudes, attributing them to a range of personality flaws and postcolonial insecurities. They are particularly disturbed by his politics, accusing him of Islamophobia, racism and, more recently, Hindu fascism. Rightwing critics (and those who condone American foreign policy in the Middle-East) view Naipaul’s Muslim journeys rather differently. They celebrate his ‘fearless truth-telling’, commend his ‘moral’ insights and praise him for his willingness to tackle ‘cultural irrationalism’....


Islam is found guilty of inducing mental illness on a national scale because it is an “Arab” religion with sacred places in Arab lands. According to this peculiar thesis, Arabs do not suffer from neurosis because they are not “converts.” The narrator fails to mention that Arabs were generally polytheists at the time of the prophet Muhammad and in order to become Muslim necessarily “converted.” Perhaps this point is dismissed because the narrator believes that the ‘sacred places” of Arabs are “in their own lands”? Assuming that this is the reasoning, it would follow that European and American Christians and Jews suffer from a similar “neurosis” because their “sacred places” are abroad. However, it is clear that in the narrator’s opinion, Western Christians and Jews are mentally sound. The logic behind Naipaul’s argument is impossible to follow. As Eqbal Ahmed asks,
Who is not a convert? By Naipaul’s definition, if Iranians are converted Muslims, then Americans are converted Christians, the Japanese are converted Buddhists, and the Chinese, large numbers of them, are converted Buddhists as well. Everybody is converted because at the beginning every religion had only a few followers. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, all prophetic religions developed through conversion. In that sense, his organising thesis should not exclude anyone. (Ahmad 9-10)


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