Condemned by Their Own Words

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Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, by V.S. Naipaul, New York: Knopf, Inc., 1981, 430 pp., $40.00.

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is a relentlessly pro-Western account of the delusion prevalent in four countries of the East: Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Khomeini's Iran. Iran, despite its monumental failures, is taken as a guiding light by the other three. The author, V.S. Naipaul, talks to an eccentric selection of Muslims. A few of them sound like they've got a mean streak, but the "hanging judge," Khalkhali, comes across as genuinely dangerous. He boasts that he killed the Shah's prime minister. Another Iranian, a communist, calls Khomeini a petty bourgeois.

In a Pakistani Sufi center, a novitiate recounts with fascination the abrupt departure of a Bengali and his return to the center behind the wheel of a brand new car. A miracle. The Malays, plodding disciples of fundamentalist missionaries from Karachi, shake their heads at a photo of a skyscraper. "We don't need technology," one of them concludes. To the non-Muslims of Kuala Lumpur, Islam is "the Malay disease." Only in Indonesia, about as far away as one can get from Mecca, is the religion taken in stride, a pleasant overlay to a lively native culture. Naipaul visits a Muslim lyric poet who brings off with overwhelming charm statements like: "I am complicated. But not confused."

Naipaul himself desires not to enchant but to expose. Purged by Western schoolmasters of the Hinduism of his parentage and the voodoo magic of his boyhood home, Trinidad, he now considers himself a traveling debunker of Third World rhetoric. He's good at it. He can smell a sham, a blowhard, a hypocrite, a mile away, and his pen is sharp. The book is a string of incriminating conversations painstakingly recorded.

Naipaul concludes that the impoverished are swelling the ranks of Islam because it validates their preconceptions. They like its message‚ÄĒbasically, that poor is beautiful. They like its authority. It organizes the affairs of a believer down to the level of small matters of personal hygiene. It is tough on infidels, who coincidentally are the believers' enemies in the secular realm. The Western businessmen, the successful immigrants, the native rich: all will perish in the purifying flame of Allah.

"Millions will have to die," says an otherwise placid Pakistani predicting the Islamic future. Naipaul thinks so too. In calling for "a society cleansed and purified," he says, the Islamic Jeremiahs seem to long for ruin.

Paul Hornak is a free-lance writer who lives and works in Saudi Arabia.