The Sound of One Civilization Clashing

by Kenneth Champeon, May 3, 2002 | Destinations: Indonesia / Malaysia / Iran / Pakistan / Kuala Lumpur / Jakarta / Islamabad / Tehran

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Review of V. S. Naipaul's Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Abacus, 2002.

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I was on a beach on the island of Ko Samet in Thailand. With me were one Thai and three Britons. Three men sat at a nearby table. The Thais have a word, kak, a derogatory term for the people living anywhere from India to Israel. Thais say the word sharply, with a kind of hiss, as if they were saying "rat", and I always feel obligated to explain that they should be more precise. Kak only betrayed an ignorance of geography, a lingering xenophobia. But the three men sitting at the table on the beach on Ko Samet were kaks. I suddenly understood the wicked convenience of the word. They didn't seem to be Israeli or Indian, but from some unknown place in between.

The men did not drink beer or any other alcohol, so I assumed that they were Muslim. For this and other reasons - including their big moustaches, shunned by Thais -- they looked out of place. And they seemed to know it. I wondered why they were here. Thailand has in abundance all the vices of Islam: gambling, drinking, prostitution, well-educated and liberally dressed women. I also began to wonder - this was post-September 11th - if they would hate me because I "looked" American. Or did they wonder if I hated them because they "looked" Muslim? Troubled by these involuntary worries, I tried not to look at them. They soon left anyway. They were the only sober vacationers in sight, and they neither laughed nor smiled. Another recent memory: a friend of mine from Thailand, who had spent the last two years working in the U. A. E., was back in Thailand for a visit. We sat in a cafe in Chiang Mai. The place had an even mixture of Thais and foreigners and the drinks were cheap. The cafe happened to be between apartments where many prostitutes lived and the bars where they worked, so they were always passing by the cafes in the evenings. Some of the girls in the cafe were prostitutes themselves.

My friend, an American, was unhappy and planned to return to Thailand. He said he couldn't stand the hypocrisy anymore. Everything that the Muslims denounced in public they did in private, he said. The place was lousy with Chinese hookers - more hookers than he had ever seen before - and people drank on the sly. And there was something else. In two years he had almost no contact with the local people, and had not a single local friend. The isolation was terrible. He might as well have been living in Nevada.

What was clear from these two encounters was how much of a mystery Islam remains to the world, and especially the fundamentalist Islam dominating the newspapers these days. There is a sense in which Islam is - or sees itself as, or has been forced into being - in opposition to the whole world. And in such a climate of mutual enmity - whether actual or apparent - mutual understanding is hard to come by. And without understanding there can be no peace.

In 1981, V. S. Naipaul published Among the Believers, an account of two years' travel in Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia. The book angered many Muslims for its rather scabrous treatment of their religion, but non-Muslims praised its depth and candor. At the very least Naipaul had humanized the people so often portrayed in the Western media as bloodthirsty fanatics. But humanizing means showing faults as well as virtues.

Nearly two decades later Naipaul revisited these countries. The result is Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. It is much like its predecessor, but its author is obviously older and wiser. Naipaul focuses more on people and less on politics, and he is less prone to denouncing what he has elsewhere called "half-formed" societies. The prologue begins: "This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion."

This is disingenuous. Every book is a book of opinion: opinion decides what facts a writer chooses to include or ignore. And obviously Naipaul is still on a mission to force the Islamic countries (with the possible exception of prosperous Malaysia) to confront their backwardness. In Indonesia he shows us the obligatory confused taxi-driver, the broken air-conditioning unit "blowing out warm air," the rather feeble national aviation industry. In Iran a tardy driver leads him to a car that won't start. In Pakistan he sips "bad coffee" presented by a "dirty servant." Later, sickened by a hot and stale room, he asks for a window to be opened but the window won't budge. And he finishes off a section with a Pakistani confessing that "the British were better than these governments."

Naipaul calls a spade a spade. But there is something of the Ugly American in this twitting of bad coffee and dirty servants and inefficiency generally. There are other measures of a successful polity besides their similarity to a Starbucks coffee shop or the Indy 500. We've just forgotten what they are.

Naipaul continues to argue that Islam was and is a far more egregious imperialism than that of the Europeans. He believes the British Raj to have revitalized an India "devastated" by Muslim conquest. The charge irritates many Muslims and no doubt helps to incite Hindus to kill Muslims. But the charge has merit. Islam did not become one of the world's major religions without the sword and the sermon. People as different as Javanese and Sudanese find themselves with Arab names, dress, customs, and language. If this is not a result of imperialism, then neither is a Chinese named Chris speaking English, wearing a three-piece suit, and swilling Merlot.

One of the stormiest debates surrounding Islam is whether it condones violence. In a sense the question is moot, for Islam has taken root in places where violence was already a common means of redressing grievances. Naipaul encounters writers charged with offending Islam. But the offended parties do not write rebuttals. Instead they threaten the writers with hanging and imprisonment or burn down editorial offices. The response is all out of proportion with the offense, and it makes a mockery of free inquiry.

Siamese women used to go around topless. But modern Thai women wouldn't dream of it. Probably the change was part of the country's effort to show the West that it was not barbaric. But one has to wonder whether, in a tropical climate, the change was practical. Naipaul records similar changes caused by Islam. Today the nudes of a Gauguin might be covered head-to-toe. The Muslim dress on Indonesian women "denied them individuality, and made them, when they were in groups, look like little shoals of blanched big-headed tadpoles." Even an Indonesian observes, "This morning we had a discussion about our chief cook in our test kitchen. After her haj [pilgrimage] she changed her dress. A Muslim wardrobe now, the veil, the long blouse, the scarf to cover herself up even in front of the flames. We are thinking about her safety. Because her clothes are of polyester material, very easy to catch fire." A martyr to polyester.

For all its value as critique, there is however something dated about Naipaul's account. He mentions some fairly current figures, like Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, and Ahmed Rashid, the celebrated author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. But the Taliban itself, which took control of Kabul in 1996, is notably absent. And the Taliban was the most notable of the recent movements to create a "pure" Islamic state. It remains to be seen whether the apparent failure of the Taliban will incite or discourage similar efforts. But to understand the motives behind such efforts, Naipaul is essential: the movements may die, but the motives remain. The civilizations, alas, will clash for some time yet.

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