‘Extraordinarily disturbing’ Nobel Prize for Literature

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The Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to V.S. Naipaul has been widely criticised in the Muslim world, India, the country of his forebears, and the Caribbean, where he was born and grew up. Muslims, in particular, have commented negatively on this year’s choice of Naipaul because the prize, to a certain extent, legitimises his unashamed and unending anti-Islamic diatribes and anti-Muslim rantings. It is feared that other Islamophobes will feel empowered in the atmosphere of hysteria produced by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Naipaul was born in 1932 into a Hindu family living in Trinidad. He journeyed to Britain in 1950 on a scholarship to study at Oxford and stayed on. His first four books were colourful, amusing novels about the Caribbean, the best being `A House for Mr Biswas,’ which was largely autobiographical. He ventured into non-fiction in the sixties with the first of his socio-politico-cultural Third World travelogues, `The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America’. His next non-fiction work was `An Area of Darkness,’ a ferocious attack on independent India, written after his first visit to the country. With this book he strode forward into similarly sneering books about the post-colonial world. Another book about India was subtitled `A Wounded Civilisation’ (1977). His real venom, however, he saved for Islam and Muslims in `Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey’ (1981) and `Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples’ (1998).

From the first of his non-fiction works to the last, Naipaul dwelt on the worst aspects of the countries and societies he explored: the dirt and poverty of the India he travelled, the “fanaticism” of some Muslims he met. His last book is a polemic against Islam’s so-called “converts” who now constitute the majority of Muslims. Naipaul puts forward the hideous theory that Islam is an “Arab religion” and “everyone not an Arab who is Muslim is a convert.” Therefore, Islam is an “imperial” religion which alters its converts so they are no longer themselves and gives rise to individual and collective “neurosis.” He applies this theory to Pakistan and Malaysia in order to explain why these countries have suffered so much political upheaval and economic stress since independence. However, while focusing his skewed analytic powers on Islam, he conveniently ignores that all religions are based on the conversion of the many by the few originally enlightened souls. Today’s Christians, Jews and Buddhists are all “converts.” He does not mention the great diversity of the “Umma,” the worldwide Muslim community which embraces 1.2 billion people of very different backgrounds who bring to the Umma the diversity and energy which makes Islam a living faith.

While I enjoyed his first novels, I also found them patronising of West Indian folk. I read his first book on India in 1967 – before visiting for the first time – and was appalled at his onslaught on that country. During the sixties when he toured, India was visibly moving forward and was a very exciting place to be, in spite of the dirt, poverty and the bumbling bureaucracy. I could not stomach his books on Islam and Muslims which seem to be a product of an anti-Muslim Hindu bias written by a non-believing Hindu ridden by guilt over his atheism. He even went so far as to praise the destruction by Hindu fanatics of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Is not surprising therefore that his books on Islam are very popular with Indian Hindu fundamentalists (who clearly ignore his writings on India itself) and his views have been adopted by Islamophobe ideologues in the ruling right-wing Hindu BJP party.

Edward Said, writing in `Covering Islam,’ says that through his books – novels as well as non-fiction – Naipaul plays a “role” in creating “general hostility towards Islam” in Western societies. Au fond, Said believes, Naipaul’s antipathy to Islam is driven by “the whole post-war wave of Islamic anti-imperialism in the Third World.” Said hits the nail on the head. Naipaul is basically an old fashioned “brown sahib,” to use a term applied by a Sri Lankan writer to South Asians who did their best to make the cultural-political conversion to the British Raj and all its ways of thought and behaviour.

Raised in an impecunious household in the cultural backwater of Trinidad, Naipaul escaped to Oxford where he was unhappy because he did not fit into the white English milieu. Since then, he has remained an outsider, uncomfortable with his marginalised status, resentful and bitter. But loyal. His loyalty, though, stems from fear. As a man born of Indian stock and bred in the Third World, he fears sinking into its warm, comforting embrace. This means he must continually lash out to declare his independence. He is both “Western imperialist” and “cultural fundamentalist.”

Said and the late Eqbal Ahmad (`Confronting Empire,’ interviews with David Barsamian) both place Naipaul amongst the racist “Orientalists” whose twisted visions of the Arab, Muslim and Third Worlds has negatively coloured the views of First World readers. In Ahmad’s opinion: “Naipaul is, and it doesn’t please me to say so, a very sick man. [His latest book `Beyond Belief’] is actually beyond belief, perhaps because it is a book driven by [Naipaul’s] ghosts. Islam is one of his ghosts. He’s like Captain Ahab,” the fictional sea captain who risked his life, his crew and his ship to pursue a white whale across the world.

To conclude, a pointed comment from a Muslim e-mail correspondent in Saudi Arabia: “Had Naipaul displayed similar phobias to other cultures, races or communities (be it Jewish, Catholic, Black, etc.) I seriously doubt that the Nobel committee would have found him acceptable for the award.” Therefore, the highest Western stamp of literary approval has been granted to the proposition that “being rapidly anti-Muslim is quite respectable.”

The writer found this “extraordinarily disturbing”, as do many other commentators. Particularly at a time Muslims are being abused and assaulted in Western countries, a Muslim country is under military attack and the Muslim world is challenged.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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