A Nobel for Islamophobia?

By Mohammed Ayub Khan


The 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature went to Trinidad-born British author - of Indian origin - V.S. Naipaul "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Since the announcement, however, quite a few eyebrows have been raised at the Swedish Academy's choice. For Muslims and many others, Naipaul is seen as an expedient choice for the award in the light of the prevailing international crisis. Some even see him as an Islamophobe. For Naipaul's supporters however, the prize has been seen as a long-awaited and well-deserved award.

Naipaul apologists would like to say that he is not anti-Muslim; but rather an equal opportunity critic of anyone and everyone. Per Wastberg of the Swedish Academy notes that, "Naipaul is critical of all religions."

Others point out that Naipaul has made scathing remarks against everyone including his own father. And recently he compared British Prime Minister Tony Blair to a pirate whose "socialist revolution" had imposed a "plebian culture".

Accusing E.M. Forster of being gay, Naipaul said the esteemed author knew nothing of India but "the garden boys whom he wished to seduce." When Elizabeth Hardwick asked Naipaul about the significance of the dot on Hindu women's foreheads he replied, "It means, 'My head is empty.' "

Similarly, his contempt for African and Caribbean peoples can be seen in such blanket statements as: "Africa has no future." Caribbean and American blacks are incapable of any "serious literature," he wrote, because their purpose is merely to "win acceptance" for their group, which leads to "profitable" protest writing and little else.

When its comes to Islam however, Naipaul's enmity knows no bounds. For him any Muslim who is not an Arab is a "convert". Islam's "fantasy" of converting the infidel, he says, is the start of a "neurosis" because "in this fantasy the convert forgets who or what he is and becomes the violator." This misconception is, in essence, the sum of all of Naipaul's Islamophobic works and statements.

Naipaul started his anti-Islamic journey with his first book Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), which Middle East expert Fouad Ajami describes as the "thinnest and least impressive book." In this work, Naipaul writes about his travels in four Muslim non-Arab or "convert" countries in 1979, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran.

In 1998 he published the sequel, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples, which finally laid to rest any doubts that remained about his inherent Islamophobia. In this book, as with the earlier one, Naipaul goes to the Muslim world with some preconceived notions and instead of correcting them, comes out with a reinvigorated assertiveness. In the prologue Naipaul writes, "Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert."

One wonders if he thinks that Christianity is a Palestinian religion and that European and American Christians are "converts". One might very well ask him if he thinks that the majority of Hindus these days are converts since it is not an indigenous Indian religion, but was brought along by the invading Aryans.

Mirroring his self imposed prejudices, Naipaul claims that the early Muslims were "invaders sweeping down from the northwest, looting temples of Hindustan and imposing the faith on the infidels." Nothing could be farther from the truth. If Naipaul's assertion is correct, then there would be no Hindus left in India today. Throughout the 1000-year Muslim rule in India - barring a few instances - Muslims never forcibly converted anyone. On the contrary, they had a conciliatory attitude towards the people from other faiths. 

Edward Said was correct when he wrote:

In effect, the 400-page Beyond Belief is based on nothing more than this rather idiotic and insulting theory. The question isn't whether it is true or not, but how could a man of such intelligence and gifts as V S Naipaul write so stupid and so boring a book, full of story after story illustrating the same primitive, rudimentary, unsatisfactory and reductive thesis that most Muslims are converts and must suffer the same fate wherever they are. Never mind history, politics, philosophy, geography: Muslims who are not Arabs are inauthentic converts, doomed to this wretched false destiny. Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I would call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order.

Ironically, Beyond Belief is dedicated to Naipaul's second wife, the Pakistan-born "Muslim" (in Naipaul's words a "convert") novelist Nadira Khannum Alvi.

Of late Naipaul has also become the darling of Hindu militancy by claiming it is a necessary corrective to the past, calling the destruction of Babri Masjid "an act of historical balancing."

As if any doubt remained, Naipaul laid bare his hostility a few weeks before the announcement of the Nobel award. Islam, he said, "had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter'."

The Swedish Academy would have been given the benefit of doubt if it had given the award to Naipaul simply for his literary merit - for example, for his incredible eye for detail in his earlier works such as A House for Mr. Biswas. That was not be, however; and the award was given for exactly the wrong reasons, thus jeopardizing the Academy's standing in the Muslim world.


Name: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul 

Born: August 17, 1932, Chaguanas, Trinidad 

Education: Queen's Royal College, Port of Spain; University College, Oxford 

Married: 1955-96, Patricia Hale; 1996-present, Nadira Khannum Alvi 

Some books: 1957 - The Mystic Masseur; 1959 - Miguel Street; 1961 - A House for Mr. Biswas; 1964 - An Area of Darkness; 1967 - The Mimic Men; 1971 - In a Free State; 1977 - India: A Wounded Civilization; 1979 - A Bend in the River; 1981 - Among the Believers; 1984 - Finding the Center; 1987 - The Enigma of Arrival; 1990 - India: A Million Mutinies Now; 1994 - A Way in the World; 1998 - Beyond Belief; 2001 - Half a Life 

Honors: 1958, John Llewellyn Rhys memorial prize; 1961, Somerset Maugham award; 1968, WH Smith award; 1971, Booker prize; 1986, TS Eliot award for creative writing; 1990, knighthood; 1993, David Cohen British literature prize; 2001, Nobel Prize in Literature


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