Sunday, October 23, 2022

Naipaul on Islamic Fundamentalism and Imperialism

Drawing of Naipaul

“The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only to one people—the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet—a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted peoples. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is restored but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at), Islam, submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.” ~ V. S. Naipaul in his book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples

In another passage, in the same book, Naipaul sees Islam as an imperialism more disruptive than the Roman Empire and the British raj: “There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs. The Gauls, after 500 years of Roman rule, could recover their old gods and reverences; those beliefs hadn't died; they lay just below the Roman surface. But Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone; they have nothing to return to.” He holds that the greatest war that the Islamic fundamentalists are fighting is not with the capitalist West but with their own pre-Islamic past, “with everything that linked them to their own earth.”

In yesterday’s article, "Naipaul on Pakistan and Conversion to Islam,” I referred to two other passages from Beyond Belief in which Naipaul is criticizing Islam for making imperial demands on new converts and describing Pakistan as a criminal enterprise. 

Stories and arguments are aplenty in Beyond Belief, and in his earlier book Among the Believers, but his overall thesis on Islam is incomplete and unconvincing. He warns his readers that the true believers of Islam could set the world to “boil” but he fails to explain why Islam is the world’s most popular religion—this religion has close to 2 billion adherents. There are several reports which suggest that Islam has already overtaken Christianity and is now the world’s largest religion. Pakistan has been on the boil since 1947, when the country came into being, but this has not weakened the hold of Islam on the nation’s politics and culture—in fact, the hold of Islam on Pakistani Muslims is much stronger today than it was in 1947.

If Islam is imperialistic, if it coerces the new converts to discard their ancestral culture and Arabize themselves, then why do people continue to convert? Why do most new converts to Islam become radicalized? In his two books on Islam, Naipaul does not offer an explanation for Islam’s success as a world religion. He does not offer a conclusion, a unique solution to the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and imperialism. He is too uneasy with Islam to be an objective chronicler—is this because of his Hindu Brahmanical background? He was a Westernized intellectual but he never lost his empathy for Hinduism. It seems that he has examined the Islamic countries with the eyes of a Westernized Brahmin.

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