Naipaul's Rage Against Islam: A Reassessment

Khademul Islam
Sat. April 17, 2004

In January of this year I was in Delhi and decided to go see Jama Masjid. It was a most disagreeable experience. The long path leading to the masjid proper is filthy, reeking of urine and excreta, with garbage floating in the stagnant shallow waterway. Not even the humblest of mosques in Bangladesh presents its visitors with that kind of a sight. The mosque structure itself, the gate, that magnificent courtyard, look stained and neglected.The dome of the Sikh temple in the distance, on the other hand, sparkled. I learnt that part of the reason is its location in old Delhi, with its press of humanity and peeling walls. Another is Imam Bukhari, who now apparently is senile and irresponsible. And the third reason is the BJP's Hindutva allies (the Hindu Vishwa Parishad, the RSS, the Shiv Sena), who view Muslim monuments in India, especially mosques, with unreserved hostility and do not encourage state expenditure on their upkeep.

A few days later I went to see Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's imperial court from 1571-85. Expanses of brilliant light and air gorgeously framed by red sandstone and roofed with a turquoise sky. Noticing more excavations going on outside the complex's boundary wall I drifted over there to watch. The contractor in charge of the labourers digging the earth pointed out the ancient hakimkhana, the extended kitchen, the tiers of terraces and connecting passageways now emerging. He was from Gujrat, with grey-brown eyes. Suddenly he said, 'You know, it is a lie that Akbar built all this. He may have built that mosque,' here he flipped a hand in the direction of Buland Darwaza, 'but the rest was built by the local thakurs.'

Perhaps because I spoke Urdu without a Bengali accent, he had taken me for an Indian..

'What do you mean?'

'Akbar didn't build this,' he insisted, this time pointing in the direction of Jodh Bai's palace, 'the thakurs did. We have been finding proof they lived over there.' He pointed at a spot about a quarter mile off, at what looked like small walls beyond a dirt road, speckled with green bushes. Though he had spoken in Hindi he had used the English word 'proof.'

'But the history books say it was Akbar,' I protested.

'English language history,' he spat out. 'Do you know that history books in Indian languages tell a very different story? All Akbar did was fight and destroy.'

'But the ruins of Akbar's Ibadat Khana is inside. He wanted the people to follow his Din-I-Ilahi.'

During this little exchange he had been looking down at the excavation pit, at the toy town of Fatehpur Sikri cradled in the sunlit valley below. Now something in my voice made him turn and look into my face. We stared at each other for a few moments, facing off, and I could see those grey-brown eyes re-assessing me.

'Din-I-Ilahi,' he finally said, softly, sarcastically.

I walked away. What the hell was this, I thought. Who was this guy spinning this recidivist, communalized history at the Fatehpur Sikri complex? Surely he didn't mean it. Surely all this magnificence was as much his as it was mine! But it was not, because Fatehpur Sikri no longer was Indian glory to him; it was instead a hateful symbol of Islamic-Mughal glory, proof of Hindu servitude, something against which plots had to be hatched. To this man, nothing could be pan-Indian anymore, it had to be either Muslim or Hindu. And if it was 'Muslim,' it had to be erased or changed.

Suddenly the January air felt far more chill. It was the word 'proof' that had done it, a poisonous, loaded word in the context of historical digs in India. I was reminded of the Indian historian Irfan Habib’s words to The Indian Express:

"Once the destruction of the Babri Masjid had taken place, it began to be justified by the Sangh Parivar on various grounds, including that they possessed 'evidence'. Before one studies this 'evidence', it is important to note that the securing of such evidence by the act of destruction was very much in the mind of the BJP and Sangh Parivar, much before the final act of vandalism. There was, till then, no acceptable proof that the Babri Masjid had been built at the site of a Hindu temple. They then turned to archeology and to Professor B.B. Lal, who had dug near the Babri Masjid. In 1990, in an article in the RSS mouthpiece Manthan, Lal said some 'pillar bases' he had found had supported pillars of the extension of the original temple that the Babri Masjid had been built on. It was a sheer piece of speculation."

Welcome to BJP's 'shining India,' I thought, to the India of Advani's rath yathra.

Another shock awaited me when I came back to Dhaka. A few short weeks later, V.S. Naipaul along with his wife Nadira--well, I guess I should say 'Lady Nadira' since he's 'Sir Vidya’-- invited by the BJP's cultural cell, went to their offices and declared himself "happy" at having been "appropriated" by the party. Naipaul has long been one of the most savage of critics of Islam, of Islamic fundamentalism (he has always lumped the two together, perhaps intentionally, with the consequent result that the failure of intellect in the latter is pinned on the former), of Islam's role in India, but I had always given him latitude for two reasons. One was the right of free speech, a right that cannot but remain inviolable. And the other was his prose, those lovely, sometimes exquisite, lines of English prose that he wrote. Especially the unsurpassable fiction of his earlier years, books such as Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. Naipaul is a Nobel Prize winner, a heavyweight figure, a writer who is read widely and seriously, somebody whose books are a fixture on Western college campuses, somebody I myself had read avidly, and here he was lending his name, his authority and his prestige to some of the most reactionary and rabid elements of the Indian polity. It felt like a betrayal of sorts now, his endorsement not just the BJP but its extreme, Hindu chauvinist right wing. Something beyond the pale.

But perhaps I should not have been taken by surprise. Many writers and critics had been warning me about Naipaul, and perhaps it was only my fault that I had not listened to them. Edward Said wrote that by the 1980s, European colonial history began to be re-appraised, that it began to be thought that, given the appalling economic and political conditions after independence in the ex-colonies, it had not been all that bad. And a figure crucial to this re-assessment, which subsequently resulted in Western intellectuals and academics being apologists for a resurgent American neo-imperialism, was none other than our very own Vidiadhar Surjaprasad Naipaul. "In the 1960s” Said noted, “V.S. Naipaul began, disquietingly, to systematise the revisionist view of empire. A disciple and wilful misreader of Conrad, he gave Third Worldism, as it came to be known in France and elsewhere, a bad name." And within this half-civilized Third World universe, the central malignant cancer, according to Naipaul, was Islam. Or in Said’s words, "In his opinion it was principally Islam that plumbed the truly ghastly depths to which the 'liberated' peoples of Africa and Asia would sink."

Naipaul travelled to the Islamic countries, to countries with substantial Muslim populations, talked with people, copiously recorded their views, then fashioned his inimitable prose around them. And out of it emerged a gruesome picture of Islamic societies where only fanaticism ruled, where it seemed that only barbarity, debauchery and an absence of intellect (always an important point with Naipaul, fanaticism linked to the absence of the thinking mind) reigned. Just as books began to reach a global audience came the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and for the first time Europeans actually saw people previously hidden in the shadows, migrants from Islamic countries, pour out on to their streets, their nice, clean, civilized streets, and burn books and threaten translators and editors. Soon there was no going back. Islam became raging mobs, Kalashnikovs, book burnings, fatwas, the Taliban, women not allowed to go to school, women mutilated, women not allowed to write, medieval dogma, mullahs, robot-like chanting of 'Allah Allah.' Never the truth, which is that Islamic anger against the West has complex roots. Then came September 11. It was a sequence which silenced Western liberals and leftists, normally naturally sympathetic to other cultures. It is a silence which has given free rein to the American attempt to bomb the Islamic world into submission, which otherwise would have met with far more home-grown opposition than is seen today. And one of those figures who made respectable this resurgence of old colonial attitudes of contempt and barbarity towards poor, nonwhite peoples is Naipaul. Himself a brown man, grandson of migrant, indentured Indian labourer in the Caribbean.

It is an attitude and belief that Naipaul brought to his writings on India, to its Muslims, to the history of Islam in India. The Muslims of India, he wrote in his book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples, like those in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, were a "converted" people who have become "part of the Arab story." They have rejected their own histories, turned away from nearly everything that is theirs, are afflicted with "neurosis and nihilism," i.e. rage, that favourite Naipaulian term for Islam. Since Islam practiced the "most uncompromising kind of imperialism" by stripping people of their past, their sacred places and their native attachments, it was readily seen as a conquering force "looting the temples of Hindustan and imposing the faith on the infidel." What Naipaul wrote years ago gels perfectly with the party line of the Hindu rightwing revisionists, with its saffron-robed screams in the humid night. It is a distortion of history to claim that religion alone was responsible for the new political order in India a thousand years back, rather than economic greed and quest for political hegemony. By the same logic one would then have to say that British rule in India was a result of the imperialist nature of Christianity. And in contrast to Islam the destroyer in Naipaul’s books, British colonialism is essentially benign. Why? Because "the British period...was a time of Hindu regeneration. The Hindus, especially in Bengal, welcomed the New Learning of Europe and the institutions the British brought." To which one can only say that there were also many Bengali Hindu anticolonial fighters who would have gladly knocked off Naipaul’s head for that particular statement!

Reviewing the book in 1998 Ian Buruma wrote that while "there was truth to these views" -- for example, Muslims faking Arab bloodlines or looking to Arabia as their spiritual homeland-- yet the book was undeniably coloured by "a Hindu rage" and by Naipaul's own "set of preoccupations." And what were those preoccupations? Those engendered by being "a Hindu in Trinidad" for whom "the sacred soil, the spiritual center, the ancestral land lies elsewhere." That "elsewhere" (which Naipaul movingly wrote were "our sacred world--the sanctities that had been handed down to us as children by our families, the sacred places of our childhood, sacred because we had seen them as children and had filled them with wonder," where “had been aboriginal people once who had been killed or made to die away") we know today to be a fantasy of some lost, organic, holistic Hindu world. A fantasy which is destructive in today's milieu and context, since it means the erasure and removal of everything in India which is non-Hindu.

Naipaul's views on Islamic societies used to be defended as a relevant critique of the failure of democracy in those countries, as ultimately not so much a rage against fundamentalist Islam as much as against all fundamentalism, of the way zealotry stopped people from seeing things clearly. Not any more. That view should go the way of dinosaurs. With Naipaul clearly aligning himself with zealots and fundamentalists of a not very different stripe, he himself has ripped apart that line of defence. Christopher Hitchens wrote last year in The Atlantic that Naipaul has "spoken warmly of the emergence of a thoroughgoing sectarian and ancestralist politics, which essentially regards the Muslim citizens of India as interlopers," that he has "been insufficiently criticized in the West for his role as an apologist for the Hindu nationalist movement in India." That now, "I frankly do not trust Naipaul, even as an eyewitness."

It is a judgement that I think ultimately will prevail.

Khademul Islam is literary editor, The Daily Star


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