AMONG THE BELIEVERS
An Islamic Journey
Naipaul traveled from Iran to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and back in 1979-80, seeking the meaning of "Islamization"--an exceptional writer/observer/commentator intersecting with an epic anti-intellectual, anti-modernist upheaval. Or is it? Naipaul the writer doesn't tip his hand: in transit, he is the tireless interrogator; the collector of persons, their life-stories, their outlooks--without the scorn he has directed toward his own in the past, in writing of India and the Caribbean. In Iran, he exposes himself to the leading ayatollas in their holy cities, notes the attendant stupor or frenzy; but his companion throughout is his interpreter Behzad, and Behzad is another kind of revolutionary, a communist: two distinct strands, sustained by different faiths, but by "absolute faith" nonetheless. "And both were fed by the same passions: justice, union, vengeance." By resentment against "a great new encircling civilization," to be depended on but not mastered. Pakistan does not fall so readily into a pattern: carved out of colonial India as a Muslim homeland, its people attribute their woes to their own imperfections, to being insufficiently "pure"; yet they live by the export of their own people too--"by appealing to the ideals of the alien civilizations whose virtues they denied at home." Still, Naipaul warms to the purest of the pure, the suspect minority Ahmadis; and to the plight of the in-betweens--like Islamicist newspaperman Nusrat, who'd like to be a Third-World media expert . . . and, recognizing the contradictions, is vulnerable to reproach. As Naipaul moves further East, into the complex civilizations of Malaysia and Indonesia where the past is ever-present, the tone of the narrative becomes gentler. In Malaysia, the villagers have grown up as strangers in a country built and run by the British and Chinese; so religion is race, race is religion; and Shaft, a stalwart of the Muslim youth movement--with whom Naipaul has the book's most searching conversations--is both grieving and aggrieved: in his own eyes, Shaft "was the first man expelled from paradise. He blamed the world; he shifted the whole burden of that accommodation upon Islam." Indonesia presents Naipaul with the remarkable personality of 56-year-old poet Sitor--recently wed in a tribal ceremony to comely young Dutch Barbara, promoter of Indonesian crafts: "The glamour of Indonesia and Sitor, the poet, for Barbara; for Sitor, the glamour and security of Barbara and Europe." Indonesia also brings the stellar anecdote: Naipaul has gone to see a celebrated pesantren, or Muslim village commune/ school; and, amid the aimlessness and disorder, he is besieged by shouts of "Illich! Illich!" Everything outside is shut out--but it is the outside (per one-time visitor Illich) that certifies success. And so the book turns back, in a way familiar to Naipaul readers, on the delusions of both the West and the Islamic world: "It was the late twentieth century that had made Islam revolutionary, given new meaning to old Islamic ideas" . . . which, in themselves, supplied no answers. But whether or not one accepts Naipaul's final judgment in its entirety (the leftist Behzads will multiply, he foresees), the journey proceeds on many challenging, absorbing levels.