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Among the Believers : An Islamic Journey ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 assault, America, egged on by its liberal intelligentsia, went through a typically oversensitive and overgenerous phase of wondering what we had done to cause such hatred of us in the Middle East.  However, the level of public anger that the murders awoke greatly shortened this period of angst and left only a few inveterate self-haters asking these questions : Susan Sontag, Barbara Kingsolver, Norman Mailer, Ted Turner, and the rest of the loathsome Leftist detritus that lingers from last century.  Meanwhile, the rest of America quickly moved on to the more accurate question of, as Bernard Lewis put it in his latest book, "What Went Wrong?" with Islam to reduce a once great religion to an ideology of little more than hatred of the West.  Oddly enough, the search for answers to this question sent us scurrying back twenty years, to a couple of books and essays by V. S. Naipaul that were roundly condemned at the time they were written, particularly in the Muslim world, but which can now be recognized as brilliant and prophetic.  In fact, for all his great novels, it is hard not to interpret the Nobel Prize that he won just one month after the attacks as a kind of tacit acceptance of his critique and a slap in the face to those who had for so long opposed awarding him the prize on the basis of his supposed Indian chauvinism and anti-Islamic bigotry.

Among the Believers recounts the author's seven month sojourn across Muslim Asia, from Iran to Pakistan to Malaysia to Indonesia and back again to Iran.  It should be remembered that he traveled in the immediate wake of the Iranian fundamentalist revolution that had overthrown the Shah, with at least implicit approval from Western intellectual elites, and ushered in a supposed new dawn of reform.  But instead of finding cause for hope in the post-Colonial muscle flexing of Islamic regimes, Mr. Naipaul warned instead that the Islamic world was unreconciled to modernity and perhaps irreconcilable.  Here we find Naipaul's assessment of Islamic fundamentalism, one that is finally coming to be accepted, though two decades too late for the folks murdered last September :

    In the fundamentalist scheme the world constantly decays and has constantly to be re-created. The only function of intellect is
    to assist that re-creation. It reinterprets the texts; it re-establishes divine precedent. So history has to serve theology, law is
    separated from the idea of equity, and learning is separated from learning. The doctrine has its attractions.  To a student from
    the University of Karachi, from perhaps a provincial or peasant background, the old faith comes more easily than any
    new-fangled academic discipline.  So fundamentalism takes root in the universities, and to deny education can become the
    approved educated act.  In the days of Muslim glory Islam opened itself to the learning of the world.  Now fundamentalism
    provides an intellectual thermostat, set low.  It equalizes, comforts, shelters, and preserves.

    In this way the faith pervades everything, and it is possible to understand what the fundamentalists mean when they say that
    Islam is a complete way of life.  But what is said about Islam is true, and perhaps truer, of other religions--like Hinduism or
    Buddhism or lesser tribal faiths--that at an early stage in their history were also complete cultures, self-contained and more
    or less isolated, with institutions, manners, and beliefs making a whole.

    The Islamic fundamentalist wish is to work back to such a whole, for them a God-given whole, but with the tool of faith alone--
    belief, religious practices and rituals.  It is like a wish--with intellect suppressed or limited, the historical sense falsified--to work
    back from the abstract to the concrete, and to set up the tribal walls again.  It is to seek to re-create something like a tribal or
    a city-state that--except in theological fantasy--never was.  The Koran is not the statute book of a settled golden age; it is the
    mystical or oracular record of an extended upheaval, widening out from the Prophet to his tribe in Arabia.  Arabia was full
    of movement; Islam, with all its Jewish and Christian elements, was always mixed, eclectic, developing.  ...

    The West, or the universal civilization it leads, is emotionally rejected.  It undermines; it threatens.  But at the same time it
    is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes, the remittances from the emigrants, the hospitals that might have
    a cure for calcium deficiency, the universities that will provide master's degrees in mass media.  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.  It is to be parasitic; parasitism is one of the unacknowledged traits of fundamentalism.

There in a nutshell, an idea-filled nutshell, is as good a description as anyone is offering today, some two decades later, of why Islam has turned so radical, so violent, so anti-Western : it has come to be a kind of retrograde utopianism which locates its Utopia not in some bright and idyllic future but in the temporary medieval community created by the Prophet Mohammed fourteen hundred years ago.  It is not the West per se that Islam is at war with, but the progressive tendencies of the West which keep bearing the whole world ever further away from a past that Muslims long to return to.  At first glance the attacks of September 11th may appear to be a kind of mindless nihilism, but from the perspective that Naipaul grants us, we can see that they were a thoughtful form of nihilism.  It becomes obvious that at least fundamentalist Muslims believe that for Islam to return to its former glory, the West must be destroyed.

I've enjoyed several of V. S. Naipaul's novels, found others less effective, but this is the best book of his that I've read.  He combines a novelist's gift for characterization, with the observations and scene-sketching of the very best travel writers, then adds to the whole the kind of insightful religio-political analysis that too few Middle East experts have offered us over the last quarter century of Islamic confrontation with the West.  It is altogether fitting that he was given his long overdue Nobel Prize in 2001, because this book does so much to explain the horrid events of that year.


Grade: (A)


V.S. Naipaul Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA V.S. Naipaul
    -ESSAY: Out of Sir Vidia’s Shadow (Paul Theroux, 2/18/22, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Ancestral voices: Naipaul’s ‘A Bend in the River’ (Jeffrey Meyers, 6/23/24, The Article)
-PROFILE : 'The Writer and the World': The Blunt Opinions of a Professional Provocateur (DAPHNE MERKIN, September 1, 2002, NY Times)
    -WIKIPEDIA: V. S. Naipaul
    -ESSAY: VS Naipaul was no victim: His fellow post-colonial writers hated him (Murtaza Hussain, 11/11/21, TUnHerd)
    -ESSAY:BORROWED CULTURE: V. S. Naipaul out-Englishes the English (HILTON ALS, 2003-02-24, The New Yorker)     -Sir V.S. Naipaul (Nobel Site)
    -V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) Naipaul (1932-)  (kirjasto)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : V. S. Naipaul (NY Times Book Review)
    -Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (Emory University)
    -Borzoi Reader | Authors | VS Naipaul
    -ARCHIVES : Naipaul (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : naipaul (Salon)
    -The Internet Public Library : Online Literary Criticism Collection : V.S. Naipaul (1932 - )
    -Postcolonial & PostImperial Literature: An Overview
   -Extract from a Seminar with VSN (Banyan)
    -Literature of South Asia and the Indian diaspora
    -V.S. Naipail: An Overview
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Between Father and Son
    -ESSAY : Among the Believers (V. S. Naipaul, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : India After Indira Gandhi (V.S. Naipaul, NY Times, November 3, 1984)
    -ESSAY : Our Universal Civilization (V.S. Naipaul, NY Times, November 5, 1990)
    -ESSAY :  The Writer and India  (V.S. Naipaul, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Reading & Writing  (V.S. Naipaul, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Indonesia: The Man of the Moment   (V.S. Naipaul, NY Review of Books)
    -LECTURE : Our Universal Civilization (V. S. Naipaul, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research : The 1990 Wriston Lecture, October 30, 1990)
    -INTERVIEW : Online NewsHour: VS Naipaul (March 3, 2000, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW : V. S. Naipaul in Search of Himself: A Conversation (MEL GUSSOW, April 24, 1994, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : The Nobelist within : V.S. Naipaul, a perceptive writer, says he can pick out his own flaws as well as other people's (Bob Graham, SF Chronicle)
    -INTERVIEW : Questions for V.S. Naipaul on His Contentious Relationship to Islam (ADAM SHATZ, October 28, 2001, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : The Writer-to-Be and His Mentor: An Interview With V. S. Naipaul (Jan. 5, 2000, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Meeting V. S. Naipaul (May 13, 1979,  Elizabeth Hardwick, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : Naipaul Reviews His Past From Afar (December 1, 1980, Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : V.S. Naipaul: 'It Is Out of This Violence I've Always Written' (September16, 1984, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul's Search for Himself in Writing (April 25,1987, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : V. S. Naipaul in Search of Himself: A Conversation (April 24, 1994, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW : from At Random Magazine
    -PROFILE : Writer Without Roots (December 26, 1976, Mel Gussow, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Another Bend in the River for Naipaul (MEL GUSSOW, November 15, 2001, NY Times)
    -PRESS RELEASE : The Nobel Prize in Literature 2001 : V.S. Naipaul (Swedish Academy, 11 October 2001)
    -ARTICLE : V.S. Naipaul Awarded 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature (THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 11, 2001)
    -ARTICLE ; V S Naipaul wins the Nobel Prize in literature (Sydney Morning Herald, October 11,10)
    -ESSAY : VS Naipaul launches attack on Islam (Fiachra Gibbons,  October 4, 2001, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : Why Sir Vidia Won : Dour, incendiary, critic of colonizers (and colonists) Naipaulís Nobel is politically timely. But itís still all about his talent (Malcolm Jones, 10/11/01, NEWSWEEK )
    -ESSAY : Nobel questions (Al-Ahram Weekly Online,  18 - 24 October 2001)
    -PROFILE : Home, to the snakes and the sensitive plants : Lieve Joris talked to V S Naipaul and his family in Trinidad in the early
1990s. Her essay casts fresh light on the the novelist and his often shocking attitudes to his native land and its people (December 2001, New Statesman)
    -PROFILE :  Wanderer Of Endless Curiosity : A self-made man of many parts, the Trinidad-born and Oxford-bred writer V.S. NAIPAUL mirrors a world in constant social flux (R.Z. SHEPPARD, Jul 10 2001, TIME)
    -PROFILE : Plebeian Blair is arts vandal, rages Naipaul (Nigel Reynolds, 11/07/2000, Daily Telegraph)
    -PROFILE : Naipaul, a fighter who will never pull his punches  (Nigel Reynolds, 12/10/2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -PROFILE : Naipaul's bleak honesty wins admirers, but not friends (John Casey, Daily Telegraph)
    -PROFILE : Author at peace with land of forefathers : Nobel winner has lost the chip on his shoulder and come to terms with his Indian heritage, says Amit Roy (Daily Telegraph, 12/10/2001)
    -ARTICLE : UK writer Naipaul wins Nobel award (October 11, 2001 , CNN)
    -ARTICLE : Naipaul awarded literature's top prize Ã�(The Age, 12 October 2001)
    -ARTICLE : Britain's Naipaul awarded Nobel Prize in literature : Author has drawn fire for criticism of Islam (JEROME WEEKS, 10/12/2001, The Dallas Morning News)
    -ARTICLE : Nobel reward for Naipaul's 'incorruptible scrutiny' (Louise Jury, 12 October 2001, Independent uk)
    -ARTICLE : V.S. Naipaul Receives Nobel for Literature (MARJORIE MILLER, LA Times)
    -ARTICLE : V S Naipaul wins Nobel prize for literature (Nigel Reynolds, 12/10/2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -EDITORIAL : A Nobel for Mr. Naipaul (NY Times, October 12, 2001)
    -IDEA OF THE DAY : Naipaul's Islam (Inigo Thomas, Oct. 12, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Strange News From Sweden : The Nobel Prize goes to a writer of actual merit. What  happened? (TUNKU VARADARAJAN, October 12, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : A burst of clarity (New Criterion, November 2001)
    -ESSAY : The Closing of the Islamic Mind : A decade ago, Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul knew the dangers of a backward-looking Islam. (David Brooks, 10/11/2001, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY :  Beyond Belief? : Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (John Wilson | posted 10/15/01, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY : Man Without a Country : V.S. Naipaul's Nobel tour (JON GARELICK, January 17, 2002, Boston Phoenix)
    -ESSAY : October Surprise  : Any other year, giving reactionary author V. S Nipaul a Nobel Prize would have sparked debate (Paul Gray, December 2001, Smithsonian)
    -ESSAY : A notebook for Mr Biswas : V S Naipaul now argues that the welfare state has created an army of thugs.  But, once, his enlightened views on culture and society inspired Amitava Kumar  (New Statesman, September 2001)
    -Ideas Trials Tribulations (1998 Forbes column about Naipaul on the Asia Crisis)
    -ESSAY :  The Enigma of Denial (Caryl Phillips, The New Republic)
    -ESSAY : V.S. Naipaul's way in the world (@Random Magazine)
    -ESSAY :  The Humor and the Pity (Amitava Kumar,  January 28, 2002, The Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Rushdie, Naipaul, and Blurring Postcolonial Borders (Anthony R. Guneratne)
    -ESSAY : Killing the Father: After 30 years of friendship, why did Paul Theroux stab V.S. Naipaul in the back? (Salon Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES : V. S. Naipaul (booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of Among the Believers : An Islamic Journey (1981) (FOUAD AJAMI, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  BEYOND BELIEF Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. By V. S. Naipaul (Michael Ignatieff, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples by V.S. Naipaul (FOUAD AJAMI, 07.13.98, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Mystic Masseur by V. S. Naipaul (MARTIN LEVIN, April 12, 1959, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Guerrillas (1975) (PAUL THEROUX, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Bend in the River (Irving Howe, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul  Bankruptcy and Revolt: (NY Review of Books, John Thompson)
    -REVIEW : of Between Father and Son (ABRAHAM VERGHESE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Between Father and Son: Family Letters Ã�and Reading and Writing: A Personal Account by V.S. Naipaul (CARYL PHILLIPS, 05.29.00, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life by  V.S. Naipaul (Jason Cowley, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of  Ã� Half A Life by V. S. Naipaul (Patrick Marnham, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of  Half a Life by V S Naipaul (Jonathan Bate, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life by VS Naipaul : Into the lion's den :  Why is Naipaul acting up and writing down? Having read Half a Life, Paul Theroux has some ideas (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life  by V.S. Naipaul (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of HALF A LIFE By V.S. Naipaul (Ron Charles, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (Richard Stern, Chicago Tribune
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (Jennie A. Camp, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life. (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (LEE SIEGEL, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (John Freeman, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life By V.S. Naipaul (Geordie Williamson, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (RENATA GOLDEN, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Half a Life (Diane Mehta, Atlantic Monthly)

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