In many ways, Among the Believers is vintage Naipaul in the Third World: the blighted human landscape of suburban sprawl and shanties, the dingy offices, the self-serving petty bureaucrats, the bland propagators of myth, the unpredictable transportation systems, the anticipated relief at eventual escape from the horror of it all. True to his craft, Naipaul is rarely dull, although there are more languid passages in this work than in its predecessors, and he displays his usual skill in capturing the personalities and conversation of those whom he meets. Predictably, he is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, characteristics which have always won for him both admirers and enemies, who can find in this book material either to reaffirm their admiration or to reinforce their distaste. On the other hand, Naipaul approaches the Islamic world with all the prejudices and all the predilections toward stereotypical judgments of the least sensitive of Western travelers: He does not come in order to learn and to understand, but to have his presuppositions confirmed, to find what he knew he would find before he ever embarked on the journey. There is an animosity toward Islam—greater even than the animosity which he appears to feel for the Third World in general—which pervades the entire book. Reviewers have commented extensively on this trait, noting that had he written with such malice toward Christianity or Judaism the applause of his aficionados in Europe or America would have fallen off rather sharply. When he does not maul, Naipaul trivializes or mocks all of those whom he encounters on his travels, even those for whom he seems to feel a degree of empathy: Behzad, the Iranian student; Ahmad, the Pakistani civil servant; Shafi, the Malaysian, and Muhammad Imaddudin Abdul Rahim, the Indonesian, both involved in Muslim service movements for young people. As in earlier travels, Naipaul plays on the leitmotif of rage, in this book the sacred rage of Islam, but sometimes the reader must wonder whether it is not Naipaul himself—exasperated by these societies and cultures which decline to adopt what he sees as the coherence and rationality of Western civilization—who feels so much rage.
Looking only for what he wants to find, apparently rejecting whatever lies outside his immediate concern, Naipaul gives his readers a diminished account of the lands through which he traveled and a diminished version of their cultural life. He seems to have sought out the half-educated or the parochial in preference to those who might have explained more articulately or more convincingly what Islam is all about. Naipaul surely knows about the achievements of Iranian Islam in terms of philosophy, poetry, mysticism, and the arts. He must know enough about the subcontinent to know about the Mogul cultural legacy and the literary development of Urdu. In Among the Believers, however, there is little hint of the enormous contribution of Islamic civilization to world history. Perhaps Naipaul never did his homework. Perhaps he unconsciously absorbed the stereotypes of Middle Easterners and Muslims so sedulously circulated by the Western media. A month or two of serious reading of books by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars in advance of his travels might have enabled him to see much more than what his tunnel vision revealed.
The Iranian Revolution was a far more complex, multifaceted phenomenon than Naipaul appears to have realized. In an early chapter, “The Night Train from Mashhad,” he describes a visit paid to the late Ayatollah Shariatmadari, presumably shortly before the latter’s fall from grace in the eyes of his government. At the time of Naipaul’s visit, Shariatmadari was one...
(The entire section is 1508 words.)
Naipaul’s alienation from the subject matter of his novels—his purposefully distanced, detached, skeptical vision of the world, which does indeed recall Conrad—adds to his strength and to his distinctiveness as a novelist. Once he leaves the world of the pure imagination, however, once he takes on the persona of traveler, observer, and literary journalist, that same state of mind can prove highly destructive, narrowing his perceptions to a kind of tunnel vision of disapproval which all too easily becomes ungenerous and malicious. It is surely for this reason that Third World readers and reviewers, thinking of him as one of themselves, have felt deeply wounded by what they perceive to be a barbed and acerbic tongue which seems to speak of non-European societies with all the dismissive contempt of their former colonial masters. This is particularly true of his two books on India, the product of two separate visits to his ancestral homeland, which are full of distaste and hostility: An Area of Darkness (with its title resonant of Conrad), and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977). No dyed-in-the-wool imperialist at the height of the Raj can have written more savagely and dismissively of the Hindu tradition.
In India, Naipaul finds an ancient civilization which, in its contemporary manifestations, he judges to be in a condition of near putrefaction; in Africa, he sees primitive savagery. In Among the Believers, he is confronted by an aggressive cultural tradition, Islam, to which his temperament is antipathetic, and a religiously inspired sociopolitical phenomenon—so-called Islamic fundamentalism—which he finds utterly repugnant. The result is not entirely happy, and Among the Believers must be reckoned among the less successful of Naipaul’s several reflections on the Third World.