Narcissus' Echo

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dogma and deracination

Warning: the following (long) post may contain opinions offensive to certain readers. Muslim readers are advised to skip this entry. Proceed at your own discretion.

A couple of years ago, while I was back in Singapore for a holiday, I met up with an old friend at one of those pretentious Coffee Bean type of cafes, where Ah Bengs & Ah Lians, with half-the-functioning-vocabularies of autistic children, reeking cigarettes, frequent grunts of "KNNBCCB!" and the occasional yelps of "CCBs," hang out, for coffee. Since both of us majored in English, the conversation naturally turned to our favorite "Boy, am I glad I picked this up!" list of books we read. His demeanor noticeably soured when I mentioned V. S. Naipaul's Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. His tone turned icy when I praised its unflinching trenchancy and the author's moral rectitude. For choosing to critique the colonial natives, postcolonials and the Third World, instead of the West, Naipaul was, in his eyes, a "sellout.". What so rankled my Singaporean Muslim friend about Naipaul's book was the author's opinion that Islam is just as imperialist as --if not more than--"Western" culture.

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998) is the follow-up book to Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). The latter was written as a result of a seven-month journey in 1979 across a number of Muslim countries in Asia: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples is the result of the author retracing his steps nearly fourteen years later, albeit with a different focus: while the earlier book focused on the revolutionary potential of the countries he visited, the latter attempts to present a more intimate picture through interviews with everyday denizens in the respective nations.

Naipaul writes:

The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only to one people - the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet - a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted people. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at), Islam, submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.

Such a form of religio-cultural imperialism is not so much Islamicization but Arabization: the converted people are required to cut themselves off culturally from their past. They become, in effect, a deracinated people. A body of people without a past is an insecure populace, and thus more likely--and more desperate--to acquire a new identity, a new history--and new leaders false prophets.

In an August 2001 interview with the Literary Review, Naipaul said, "I was interested in these convert societies [in Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan]; history now begins in Arabia. It's as though they have no history before the coming of Islam."

In his review, C. J. S. Wllia states,

Naipaul's thesis in Beyond Belief is: "There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs. [...] Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone, they have nothing to return to." In the Indian context, Naipaul views Islam as far more disruptive than the British rule.

Now, a casual reader might label V. S. Naipaul as an eloquent hatemonger, and me as one of his gullible stooges, but consider this recent article on August 6th 2005, by a BBC correspondent based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jonathan Kent:

Malaysia's clash of cultures

When it comes to interpreting Islam, many Malaysians are torn between their own culture, Western influence and a growing trend towards copying all things Arabic.

A few days ago I visited P Ramlee's old house in Kuala Lumpur.

Unless you are from this part of the world you probably will not have heard of him.

But in Malaysia, more than 30 years after his death, he is still an icon.

In life he was Malaysia's Elvis and Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Irving Berlin all rolled into one. His modest bungalow is now a museum.

But when I visited I was alone, apart from an attendant who seemed to be hiding under his counter.

So I wandered around looking at photos from P Ramlee's films and listening to his wonderful singing voice.

'Gentle and sensual'

One of the reasons I look forward to the holidays here is because the local TV stations always screen a good selection of his movies.

My favourite is the comedy Madu Tiga - or Three Honies - made in 1964.

P Ramlee plays a married man who decides to take a second and then a third bride, all with the collusion of his first wife's mischievous father.

But despite his best efforts to keep the three from finding out about one another, inevitably they meet, become friends and finally gang up on him.

It is a cautionary tale.

But what is most striking about P Ramlee's films from the 1950s and 1960s is their depiction of Malay life.

His movies are gentle and sensual, the people relaxed, fun-loving and charming. There are even jokes about gin.

Shadow puppetry

One can still catch glimpses of a Malaysia P Ramlee would have recognised, in backwaters like the east coast state of Kelantan.

I had traveled deep into its countryside looking for Dollah Baju Merah-Abdullah, who wears a red shirt. He is the last performer of the local brand of Wayang Kulit: shadow puppetry.

"I can't speak well," he told me, when he came out onto the porch of his little wooden house to greet me and he tapped his chest.

"I've been ill," he said.

He was not up to giving a demonstration but half-heartedly pulled out a couple of puppets from a box to show me.

I could see instantly why his is a dying art. The puppets depict heroes and gods from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The local government in Kelantan put a stop to Dollah's performances. Likewise traditional dance.

They are considered un-Islamic.

Foreign endorsement

Elsewhere in Kelantan I met up with Nik Rashidee, the custodian of an astonishing collection of Malay woodcarvings assembled by his late brother Nik Rashidin, the greatest carver of his age.

Among the antique pieces the Hindu influence is obvious: carvings of Garuda (a Hindu deity and king of the birds) and dagger handles in the shape of Shiva's head.

They were not even exhibited in Malaysia until they had already been shown at the British Museum.

It took the endorsement of a foreign institution before locals even started to wake up to their beauty.

All these crafts are being destined to oblivion, not just by conservative Muslims who dress in the Arabic style and frown on their own culture, but also by Malaysia's rapid modernisation.

Malay people seem to love the new and shiny, not the old.

Whirlwind of change

At the same time they have been consumed by a wave of Islamicisation that swept across the world from the 1970s, a wave ridden by Malay politicians who after the Iranian revolution decided it was that, or be drowned by it.

"Now we understand what it is to be proper Muslims," people tell me, and in this rapidly developing country many have found in their faith a still centre in a whirlwind of change.

But it is not just traditional arts that are under pressure.

Looking at posters from P Ramlee's movies, I realise that films like these could not be made today.

"All we can do these days is tut tut at one another," a Malay friend tells me.

Across the country one sees the evidence of a culture of disapproval.

Young Malay women wear headscarves drawn tight around their faces; something their grandmothers never did.

Nightclubs are raided by the religious police, couples are prosecuted for holding hands and Muslims are sentenced to be whipped for drinking beer.

This is not policy. This comes from the conservative grassroots.

Behind closed doors

The federal government seems unsure how to respond.

Those who raise their voices against the new breed of religious teacher, schooled in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, are shouted down. "Kaffir," they scream.

And jokes about gin are just not seen as funny.

But the saddest encounter I had in Kelantan was with a criminal lawyer.

"What keeps you busy?" I asked.

"Rape," he said. "It's all rape."

Incest, drugs and rape afflict the Malay community far worse than Malaysia's large Chinese and Indian minorities.

Piety in public. Acts that lead to self-loathing behind closed doors.

There is a sense that the Malays are a people increasingly adrift, and as at ill at ease with themselves now, as their grandparents' generation appeared content.

It would have broken P Ramlee's heart.


Two excerpts from the Al-Ahram Weekly, based in Cairo, read,

In Among the Believers Naipaul argued vehemently that modern life had shaken up "static or retarded" Islamic societies. Islam's central flaw was at "its the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the faith... This political Islam was rage, anarchy," he wrote.

[ . . . ]

Naipaul -- typically -- does not nuance his views; he declared just last week at a reading in London that "[Islam] has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples," pointing in particular to Pakistan. "To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter'." He also described the "abolition of the self demanded by Muslims" as worse than "the similar colonial abolition of identity."


To take a glance from another tangent: if one makes the argument that the Malays in Singapore are faring poorly due to their status as minorities, then what about the Chinese minority outpacing the Malay majority in Malaysia? After all, relative to the Malaysian Malays, the Malaysian Chinese are institutionally disadvantaged, so why are the latter doing better as a whole? Consider the implicit admission by the Johor Umno Liaison Committee on July 09 2005:

JOHOR BAHARU, July 9 (Bernama) -- The Johor Umno Liaison Committee Saturday criticised the meritocracy system introduced by the government, saying that it resulted in a fall in the achievement of Malay students and is a form of discrimination and oppression.


This diatribe is not an exercise in hate speech or hate mongering, or even racism, but rather, an examination of the possibility that certain tenets in Islam hold its believers back in the grand scheme of progress and development. In words of a reviewer, Daniel Pipes, "Naipaul found a surprising contradiction: those intent on rejecting the West in the name of Islam are also adamant about gaining the fruits of the West's achievements." If your culture and religion construct a type of society from which young men emerge at age 20 or 21, equipped with the skills, training and knowledge for the 12th century, in a world of the 21st century, then you have no one to blame but yourselves when your society suffers from material want, and consequent envy.

Having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001 "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories," Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is hardly in the same odious company as the authors of Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries. There is unqualified / unqualifiable hate, and there is the truth.


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