NAIPAUL'S TRAVELOGUES AND THE "CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS" COMPLEX
by Amin Malak
With Naipaul, the controversial writer par excellence, one is neither neutral nor indifferent. The critical response to his travelogue pronouncements are characterized by a clear cultural cleavage: Anglo-American critics celebrate him as the uncompromising truth-teller, a "manager of stories," and "a travelling talesman"; third-world critics label him as "V.S. Nightfall" (Derek Walcott), a "false native informant" (Spivak), and condemn him for insensitivity and arrogance that pander to Western prejudices.
As his fictional and non-fictional works reveal, V.S. Naipaul has an expressed loathing for the cultures and political aspirations of many third-world societies: be they Indian, Caribbean, or African. However, to the delight of neo-colonial politicians and cultural mandarins, Naipaul has reserved his inimitable brand of satire for Islam. His two books, Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), testify to that. They deal with his visits to four non-Arab, Muslim countries: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Based on brief visits to these four countries, he makes categorical presumptions about a rich, diversified, and complex culture like Islam's. He extrapolates whatever contradictions he gleefully spots in the Muslim individuals he interviews in these countries toward totalizing assumptions about the whole societies to which those individuals belong.
Naipaul's early fictional work held immense promise. His blend of humour and humanity, shown in The Mystic Masseur (1957) and Miguel Street (1959), has accorded him the admiration of many readers and critics alike. And his magnum opus, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), is a fascinating meditation on the nature of exile, survival, and human intimacy under strenuous family and social constrictions. Regrettably, Naipaul's fund of spirited irony and benign cheer degenerated into a relentless series of books denigrating the hopes and aspirations of many third-world countries. Being such an inveterate denouncer of the third world, Naipaul has increasingly earned, at least in the eyes of many postcolonial critics, the just title of being the curmudgeon of contemporary literature in English.
In his second travel book on Islam, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Naipaul revisits the same four Muslim countries that he has covered in Among the Believers. However, the key new element in this book is the sub-titled term "converted," that represents the bedrock of his pet claim. With no rational foundation or historical analysis, he makes a hasty generalization that all current non-Arab Muslims—representing about one billion out of a total of 1.2 billion Muslims in the world—should be identified with the suspect term "converted." All his subsequent travelogue observations are tiresomely tailored toward this initial and unexamined hypothesis: the great masses of non-Arab Muslim peoples are still considered, in Naipaul's eyes, "converts." Naipaul never pauses to reflect upon the simple fact that all existing religions must have been founded, at their inception, on a conversion from one system of belief toward another, and that all initial adherents to any new religion are converts. So, why Muslims alone are accorded this dubious description? Never known for examining his narrow views or engaging in graceful dialogical discourse, Naipaul arrogates to himself, a man of Hindu ancestry, the role of labelling Muslims with a term that they robustly reject as being quite offensive. This prejudicial exterior perspective is no credit to him.
It is instructive in this context to read Naipaul's diatribes against Islam in the light of Samuel Huntington's oracular pronouncements on Islam. In his highly overrated essay, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Huntington states his cardinal concept that "the fundamental source of conflict" in the world is neither ideological, nor economic: "The Great divisions among human kind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural" (22). In a grandiose schema, he divides the world into "seven or eight major civilizations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African civilization" (25). My objection to such a presumptuous claim is that conflicts—whether global, regional or national—cannot be attributed to one source only: there are always more than one factor provoking and exacerbating a conflict. No self-respecting intellectual would reify or essential-ize all conflicts: conflicts are not created equal and there is no one-size-fits-all description: each conflict pertains to its own locale, socio-political specificity, and cultural particularity: the natures and sources of conflict in Northern Ireland is different from that in Tibet, what is happening in Kurdistan is different from what is happening in Rwanda, and the conflict in Bosnia is different from that in Chiapas, Mexico, or in Columbia. Since Huntington's perspectives are shaped and confined by Western—specifically US—geopolitical interests and strategies, Huntington is in no position to make meaningful, objective hypotheses that could be taken seriously as insightful discourse.
Interestingly, Huntington approvingly nuances a statement made by V.S. Naipaul claiming that "Western civilization is the 'universal civilization' that 'fits all men' " (Huntington 40). While Huntington has no qualms about Naipaul universalizing Western values for "fitting all men," he highlights the stiff resistance to these values because of their conflict with indigenous, mainly Asiatic but more specifically Islamic, values:
What both Naipaul and Huntington want us to believe is that the so-called "non-Western cultures" are congenitally benighted because they decline climbing the magical bandwagon of "Westomania" (Jalal al-Ahmad) or "Westoxification" (212), to borrow Fred Halliday's coinage. Apart from their fetishization of Western values, both Naipaul and Huntington share two striking attitudes: both reveal a suspicion, if not a hostile dislike, of other cultures and an uncanny tendency towards grand generalizations about the nature and values of these "other" cultures that Huntington and Naipaul have essentially constructed and attributed whatever they fantasized to them. This constructed "other" is often subjected to all sorts of reductive, essentialist qualifications, none of which is complimentary or appealing. The outcome of this assembled alterity is a notion that clash and conflict between the West and its "other" are inevitable and they better be understood, "discoursed," and controlled to the advantage of the legitimatized, civilized/civilizing West. This binary, oppositional configuration becomes very pronounced when Huntington and Naipaul point out Islam, both as a religion and as a culture, as the retrograde force whose destructive tendencies need to be curtailed, contained, or conquered.
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