When V. S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey was first published in 1981, the world barely took any notice of it. Presumably, the world was least interested in one man’s travel across relatively unknown and inconsequential corners of Asia and his ramblings about the alleged precariousness of the Islamic revolution. But the world has changed since 1981; especially after the horrendous rise of religious fundamentalism. The horrific happenings of the last decade have forced people to see and appreciate what Naipaul confronted in this travelogue two decades ago. The book – which records Naipaul’s journeys through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia – which was once considered delirious, is now widely regarded as prophetic for it gives acutely insightful accounts of the rift between the east and the west.
Naipaul journeys the four countries between summer of 1979 and the winter of 1981 when each of the four countries was in someway or the other experiencing turbulent times: Iran had just overthrown the regime of Shah Pahlavi and instated an Islamic state; Pakistan and Indonesia were under military rule; and in Malaysia (to some extent in Indonesia also), a slow racist storm was brewing against the immigrant Chinese. But what was common to all these nations was that the ideology of Islam was extending itself from its original realm of religion and culture into the realm of politics and governance. Naipaul in his eloquent and compelling way scrutinizes the inherent flaw of allowing the religious mullahs to take the helm of the government (as exactly what had happened in Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini ruled after the Islamic revolution as the representative of the twelfth imam or the regent of god). The Islamic revolutionaries seek to bring the golden rule of prophet back, where governance will be conducted by the rule of the holy book Quran. But is this the right way forward?
The reasons for the instinctive move towards the glory of the past, as Naipaul elicits, are multi-layered and confounding. In Iran, the people desperate and desolate under the oppressive regime of the Shah, believe that Islamic rule will be the panacea for wide spread corruption in the system. In Pakistan too, the military rule promised the Islamic rule to the deprived people. It is almost like people wanted a one-time quick fix solution to all the ills of the society; something that can solve people’s problems for eternity so that they can live happily ever after. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the oppressed people were the destitute natives overwhelmed by the immigrant and prosperous Chinese. The native peasants who struggle to find their place in the world seek solace in Islam, which seems to give them a sense of identity and a purpose in their life. Consequently, the call for the rejection of materialism (and in turn the rejection of anything that is ideologically west) and the embracing of universal justice and equity takes deep roots in their minds in the form of Islamic allegiance. But this rejection is not entirely possible, as these civilizations increasingly find themselves dependent upon western technology to sustain them; and in the end, caught in a state of incertitude that will split them between their allegiance and the inevitable betrayal and cause even more anguish.
Naipaul handles the enigmatic subject with a facile clarity and inimitable style. With a novel like characterization, he creates the exquisite landscapes with his lucid prose. He effortlessly transforms the reader to places with his sense for detail and acumen for historical accounts. But people are the most important part of his travel. Naipaul is constantly striving to reach out to the humans that ultimately everyone is. Even though he is cynical towards their ideologies, he views them with compassion. He travels to unknown corners of the world and converses with people from all walks of life; he transforms us into their worlds, painting their portraits with his poignant prose. Naipaul finally might be the agent of the west; his vision slightly blurred by its influences. But his compassion for people is finally what that allows him to delve deep into their lives and discern better.
Far ahead of its time, the book was more than just a prophecy. It was a portentous warning of what religious fundamentalism was capable of; a warning the world sadly missed. But what the book fails to acknowledge (though implicitly it does at places) is the root cause of the ideological rejection of the west: the rampant exploitation and oppression in the era of colonization which created the need for alternative ideologies. This leaves a disturbing void, almost like an unconfessed guilt nagging the inside of our minds. But Among the Believers is Naipaul’s intimate affair with the east; an affair that is as compassionate as it is enlightening.