Sunday, October 18, 2009

Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples is V. S. Naipaul returning to the countries—and some of the same people—he visited about fifteen or so years previously in Among the Believers to see how things have progressed. It is, as Naipaul says on the first page, a book of stories: countries and their history as seen through the words and experiences of the people Naipaul meets.

The book is in four parts, each covering a country—Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia. These are the countries of conversion. In the case of Iran and Pakistan, Arab conquest is seen as a liberation. (Islam came to Malaysia and Indonesia originally via traders, with Islam becoming the majority religion probably in the 1400s.) The theme of conversion has struck Naipaul more forcefully this time around:
Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view 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 (p.1).
There is an element of this in Christianity, the other great revelatory and universalist religion, which Naipaul alludes to: mainly in the context of the loss of the sense of sacredness of place. But Christianity—a religion founded by preachers concerned with moral rather than social order in a polyglot Empire which rather took care of the social order issue—has no sacred language and its relationship to the political is much more contingent than is Islam’s, whose founder was a ruler and conqueror. Politicised traditional Christians are often criticised for the narrowness of their concerns—typically abortion and sexual taboos. Politicised Muslims are much more likely to think Islam is the basis for the solution of all political issues.

In both religions, saints and martyrs provide a local anchoring for a universal religion. Though such veneration is not without controversy in either—a standard Salafi abuse of Shi’a is corpse worshipper, parallelling Protestant denunciation of Catholic veneration of saints as idolatry.

The Indonesia Part (this is before the fall of the Suharto regime) is entitled The Flight of the N-250, a plane project of Habibie, the Islamist Industry minister. In accordance with his normal technique, Naipaul takes a “bottom up” perspective, looking at Indonesian history through the lives of particular individuals. The experience of Dutch rule, Japanese occupation, war against Dutch rule, the 1965 struggles and mass murders (the Wikipedia article’s use of terms such as “right wing” is not very useful), the pressures of modernisation, religion and changing village life, are seen through their experiences.

Naipaul is also fascinated by the lingering effects of Indonesia’s Hindu and Buddhist past, the echoes of which operate in local Islam—such as a classic Hindu holy figure becoming a local Muslim saint—and the sundering from that past that Islam represents and often seeks to deepen.

The Part covering Iran is entitled The Justice of Ali. Naipaul shows us a society exhausted by revolution, one with disaffected youth. The Iranian Revolution looms over everything. Its patterns continue—for example, from Khomeini “creating disorder”—acting arbitrarily—because that was the easy path to power (p.184). One can see that lack of sense of regard for being bound by “other people’s” rules in its foreign policy beginning with the Iran hostage crisis. Yet within Iran “Islamic” rules pervade everything (pp238ff), another legacy of Khomeini. The section includes a brilliant few pages on the socio-economic basis of the Iranian Revolution (pp256ff). Again, Naipaul is very aware of how modern Iran’s identity rests on rejecting its pre-Islamic past yet the very identity of being Iranian is to have that past.

We then move on to Pakistan, in Part III entitled Dropping off the Map. Pakistan is a country (apart from Sindh) more pervaded by the pre-Islamic past than Iran.

British rule of the sub-continent was a period of Hindu regeneration after centuries of Muslim rule. Naipaul sees this regeneration as a continuing process: India continues to grow intellectually, while Pakistan shrinks (p.268).

Confiscation of Sikh and Hindu assets at the time of the creation of Pakistan, Cold War subsidies from the US and remittances from the export of its people have been basic to Pakistani solvency, such as it is (p.267). Pakistan law is a awkward mixture of British law, Islamic additions and political manipulation (p.268).

Muslim poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the first significant proponent of the concept of Pakistan, distinguished Islam from Christianity on the basis that Islam had legal concepts of civic significance, which Christianity lacked (p.269). Hence the need for an Islamic state. Tracing the implications and permutations of Iqbal’s vision becomes an underlying theme of Naipaul’s narrative. Since religious identity is central to the Pakistani state—to the entire project of Pakistan—the mullahs become the definers of the acceptable (p.329). There is constant pressure from the “fundos” (fundamentalists) to make everything more Islamic (p.311). This dream of an Islamic solution to all the problems of politics persists:
after all that had happened, the dream was still here … the dream of restoring the golden age at the very beginning of Islam, when the manageable, pure congregation was at one with itself and the ruler (pp 318-9).
(Of course, of the first four Caliphs, the third and fourth were assassinated, the latter during the civil war which created the main split in Islam.)

The final picture of Pakistan is of a state in decay presiding over decay—literally in the case of monuments from the past (p.381).

The book ends with Part IV Malaysian Postcript: Raising the Coconut Shell. The personal stories Naipaul takes us into contrast urbanised, bustling Kuala Lumpur with village life; village traditions reaching back into a pre-Islamic past with Muslim purities. The final chapter is the story of the parents and upbringing of a Malay poet. His father suffered schizophrenia and periodically retreated into the “other world”. His mother kept the family going and attended to her husband’s needs. Her son’s appreciation of the success of her devotion in keeping his father alive for probably two decades longer than he would have otherwise ends the book.

Naipaul is less questioning, more conclusive in Beyond Belief than he was in Among the Believers. It is not that he less interested in people’s stories: he remains every bit as interested, they are still central to how the book operates. It is just that he clearly feels more confident in his conclusions, as if what they are saying is mainly a matter of further and better particulars for conclusions already reached.

Which is perhaps why his last chapter really isn’t about Islam or the experience of being Muslim or among Muslims at all, but family devotion and the trials (and triumphs) of madness. He sees the Islam of the converted peoples as narrowing, loss, constriction. A family tragedy that is also a family triumph is a relief, in its simple humanity and travel around the edges of sanity, from much more grandiose—and so much more dangerous—burdens. A statement in itself, perhaps.

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