Thursday, May 15, 2008

Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual: "Among The Believers: An Islamic Journey" by V.S. Naipaul

Off and on since November, my Friday evenings have been occupied with reading V.S. Naipaul's "Among The Believers: An Islamic Journey" . Naipaul, a Nobel Prize winner, traveled throughout four Muslim nations during the last six months of 1979. He traveled throughout Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. "Among The Believers" explores the impact of Islam on individuals trying to come to grips with personal and national discontent as well as Islam's interaction with the West. Naipaul demonstrates how Islam prevents these nations from developing normal, coherent societies beneficial to most of its citizens. Naipaul introduces us to people searching for their place in the world and not finding it. Many are dissatisfied with themselves and their fellow citizens. As we meet such people again and again in the book, Naipaul introduces us to an irony that appears repeatedly: those who live in failed Islamic states blame the failure on themselves and their countrymen for not being good Muslims when in fact, Islam is to blame.

Naipaul arrived in Iran after the Shah fell but before the U.S. Embassy was taken over by militant Iranian students. This was a time when many political groups were allowed to exist. Naipaul's guide in Iran was a communist student, a follower of Stalin. This young man's zeal for a communist revolution matched the zeal of his Muslim student counterparts. Naipaul came to conclude that Islam's religious zeal and the zeal of secular revolutionaries spring from the same roots: the desire of individuals to destroy the person hood of everyone else to produce a population of robotic adherents to the rules of a perfect state. Naipaul met such individuals in all four countries he traveled in. Everywhere he encountered individuals who at first seemed to be their own person, some lively and gregarious, some ambitious to better themselves. But Islam, with its demands on a person, its rules for public and private behavior, progressively stole their identity. An Indonesian man related how his daughter progressively became an adherent to the Koran. As she progressed as a Muslim, her individuality disappeared. He mourned the loss of his daughter's intellect. One day, in an ironic tone, the father asked his daughter if she could go camping with friends if she would have no water for ablutions before prayers. Later the daughter told her father "I have checked. In the Koran there is nothing that says it is obligatory if you are traveling." She had become impervious to irony. The father asked her "But don't you have a mind any longer? Do you have to go to that book every time? Can't you think for yourself now?" Her reply: "The Koran is the source of all wisdom and virtue in the world." (p. 303)

One the one hand, the people we meet in this book are just like ourselves. They have the same hopes and fears we have. Their lifestyle centers around generosity. Naipaul's portrayal of them creates compassion for them in the reader. The character that I will remember the best is a newspaper editor in Pakistan. He so wanted to be a good Muslim and lamented his failures. He wanted nothing better than that his countrymen would be good Muslims too. Yet, when he published an article about Mohammed's granddaughter that radical Muslims deemed offensive, there was a national outcry against him and his newspaper. The turmoil caused him to age considerably in just a few months. Later, we see him at prayer in a mosque. His prayer cap falls. He is inwardly anguished; has he sinned against Allah by praying to Him with his head uncovered? Has anyone seen this? Could Martin Luther's inner turmoil over whether he had angered God before his own discovery of grace been as severe?

Yet it is chilling to read how some of these ordinary people prescribe what must be done to achieve a perfect Islamic society: mass extermination. A businessman in Indonesia laments what financial success has done for him: "I feel in Jakarta I have lost my sensitivity. I have an office on the ninth floor of one of these big new buildings. Its centrally air-conditioned. I go to office in an air-conditioned car. Going back to my place, I stay at home reading. I look at television. Where am I living? I cannot grasp poverty. How can I grasp the complaint from society?" To this man, Islam is the answer to injustice. But to achieve a pure Islamic society, what is the first step, according to this man? "We have to kill a lot of people. We have to kill one or two million of these Javanese." (p. 380-381)

Naipaul discovered that Muslims want all the material benefits they can get from the West without their personal lives being affected. They acquire as much material goods as they can. They may travel to the West for training. Yet they resist Western ideas and technology from gaining a foothold in Muslim countries. This resistance to the positive aspects of modernization prevents Muslim nations from advancing as a civilization and impoverishes the minds and bodies of its citizens.

Naipaul is a fine writer. He is equally adept describing the natural beauty of various landscapes as well as the squalor of populated, polluted cities. He is able to portray the living conditions and attitudes of all social classes. Reading his portrayal of the people he interacted with, the I felt that I had actually met these people and been made aware of just what makes them tick. Naipaul causes us to sympathize with those who are trapped by their belief in and adherence to Islam. Its been nearly thirty years since he made his journey. I can't help wondering where these people are. What has been their fate? What have they become? Are they still alive? What has Islam done to them? Naipaul writes from a secular perspective, yet I can think of no better source that makes Muslims as real to me, or gives me a greater burden to pray for them.

The next two books to be read for "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual" will be "The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South" by Philip Jenkins and "The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World" by Miroslav Volf.

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