Islam, Nationalism and Democracy

by Majid Naficy

In 1979 Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the Indian-Caribbean-British writer and the recent recipient of the Nobel prize in literature, traveled to Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia and wrote a book, Among the Believers [1], about the new upsurge of Islamic movements in these four non-Arab Moslem-majority countries. Sixteen years later, he revisited the area, and in 1998 published Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples [2], about the new developments in the region.

Shortly after September 11th 2001, I read the second book and found it relevant to the current debate concerning Islam, nationalism and democracy. 

Naipaul does not organize his observation notes into an ordinary travel document. He devotes a good portion of each chapter to specific individuals in order to demonstrate the social circumstances in each region through personal stories.

For instance, in the chapter related to Iran, we learn that in his childhood the well-known mullah, Sadeq Khalkhali, had been a shepherd boy in an Azarbaijani village but after the 1979 revolution he becomes a brutal hanging judge who now, in his own words, "cuts off sheep's heads".

In 1995, while interviewing him in the pilgrim city of Qom, Naipaul finds Khalkhali politically passive and suffering from a heart attack. Yet, he is cunning enough to encourage Naipaul to visit the house-bound, dissident clergyman, Hossein-Ali Montazeri. This style of travel-writing is taken from the techniques of the writer's craft, that is, writing novels, or as he refers to it, "managing narratives". However, the book suffers from redundancy and lack of editing to the extent that sometimes the reader feels that he is reading some hasty notes.

The reluctance of Naipaul to express his personal feelings imposes a cold "objective" tone to the book. This shortcoming is less obvious in the chapter related to Pakistan, because from time to time the author finds affinity between Pakistani customs and rituals with what he has experienced as a child in his Indian community in Trinidad.

Escape from "I" and personal account is also a characteristic of Naipaul's novels. However, as the French writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) writes in his book, Ghosts in the Mirror ,  all novels are "disguised autobiographies", and writers cannot wipe out their personal footprints.

The unifying theme of the book is highlighted in its secondary title: "Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples", and the author both in the preface and the text tries to elaborate on it. He believes that Islam based on its origin is an Arabic religion.

Wherever it conquers other nations it forces them to abandon their previous religions and cultures. They have to worship only one holy book in Arabic, and one holy site in Arabia. The denial of national identity of non-Arab Moslems leads to "neurosis" and "nihilism". These factors, in turn, cause social unrest among the converted nations.

Naipaul's prognosis is problematic both in terms of diagnosis and treatment. Intolerance towards other religions and idealogies is not limited to Islam. In late antiquity, none of the two competing monotheistic religions, that is, Christianity in Byzantine empire and Zoroastrianism in Iran, welcomed coexistence with their rivals. They had monopolies over truth and considered other religions as "false".

Their conquered subjects were obliged to desert their previous faiths. It is only in the modern era that the development of democracy and separation of church and state pave the way for religious tolerance, and different religions learn to exist with one another.

Ever since the West has obtained democracy, people tend to cherish cultural differences, But in Moslem-majority countries where individuals do not enjoy freedom of expression, Islamic fundamentalism, just as in the Middle Ages, plays an active role. It attempts to uproot different cultures in the name of holy war against "paganism", "blasphemy" and "atheism". However, the suppression of non-Moslem cultures inside the Islamic world is not limited to non-Arab "Moslem countries", and it is carried on within Arab lands as well.

Religious intolerance is generally caused by fundamentalism and only in some specific cases it is combined with national oppression.

Arab supremacy existed during the short-lived Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus (660-750) when the non-Arab converts, such as Persians and Egyptians, had to attach and subordinate themselves to different Arab tribes with the status of "mawali" (clients). By the fifteenth century, with the establishment of three Islamic empires: the Ottomans (1453-1923) in Asia minor and southern Europe, the Safavids (1501-1722) in Iran, and the Moghuls (1526-1858) in India, the Arab themselves were subjugated to non-Arab nations.  In the modern era, Arab nationalism uses Islam as a banner for its ethnic goals, as can be seen in Nasserite Egypt, or the Baath movement in Iraq and Syria. In short, the suppression of national identity and the emergence of social "neurosis" is not caused by the Arabic origin of Islam, but rather by the lack of democracy among both non-Arab and Arab Moslems.

Naturally, these two different diagnoses effect our approach to the treatment of the disease. If we consider the Arabic origin of Islam as the source of social neurosis among the non-Arab Moslems, then logically we must conclude that the only path to salvation for these nations lies in a crusade against the religion of Islam itself.

Whereas if we find religious intolerance and fundamentalism as causes of the disease, then we will attempt to spread the idea of individual rights and separation of religion and state. Even when society has not yet entered the era of liberty and religious tolerance, the dominance of a monotheistic religion, like Islam, does not necessarily lead to the complete annihilation of the previous religions and they continue to live in new forms.

Of course, a fundamentalist sect, such as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, attempts to destroy the ancient non-Moslem holy sites and prevent the construction of any new holy places. But the people do not passively submit to the religious edict; rather they try to make new temples or Islamize the old ones.

It is interesting that Naipaul himself, in spite of his hypothesis, finds examples for this transformation among the peoples of these four non-Arab "Moslem-majority countries". In Indonesia and Malaysia, the impact of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism is still visible in Moslem mosques. In Pakistan one can see the footprint of Krishna in a sufi temple. In Iran one can find the stones taken from the ruins of the pre-Islamic Persepolis and then reused in the building of a mosque in a nearby-town, Istakhr. Therefore Islam, like any other religion, has to wear the national dress of the people in order to enter a new land. The strict fundamentalists see only the religious dogmas and try to suppress the expression of any cultural nuances within the religious form.

But life gradually removes their illusions and covers the religious dogmas with local colors. It seems that V. S. Naipaul, in his trip, was mostly surrounded by Islamic fundamentalists, especially the Wahhabi type. He takes the Wahhabi's approach toward Islam and extends it to all islamic factions. In Afghanistan, the Taleban destroyed the twin Buddha on Bamian rocks, but the Zoroastrian fire temples in Iran, and the holy Buddhist sites in Indonesia, still stand and resist religious conformity.

In spite of these shortcomings, Beyond Belief is a very useful book for the study of the Islamic movements in the 1980's and their different patterns of development in the 1990's within those four countries. The process of transformation is almost similar in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

The secular governments gradually let the Islamic ideologues join the political apparatus and become part of it. In Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, an Islamic party leader replaces Jusuf Habibie as president, and in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of a dissident Moslem youth league, becomes one of the leaders of the ruling party. In Pakistan, the sharia ties of General Zia-ul-Haq's Islamic state gradually loosen, but the society remains in crisis shaken by religious and ethnic upheavals. What is the source of this crisis in Pakistan?

Is it the lack of separation of religion and state? Naipaul alludes to the belief of Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) one of the founding ideologue of an Islamic state in Indian sub-continent, who envisioned the establishment of Pakistani political system as a blend of religion and state. The followers of Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), who are organized in the pan-Islamist party of "Jamaat-e Islami", differ with Iqbal only to the extent that they want to export their Islamic revolution outside of the boundaries of Pakistan. In the chapter related to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the author reflects the hopeless atmosphere of the country after the eight years of the Iran/Iraq war, which leads to the emerging "reformist" movement and presidency of Mohammad Khatami in August 1997. One of the Tehrani interviewees believes that the way to salvation depends on the marriage of two Westernized and Islamic "clans" in Iran.

Of course, social and political developments in these four countries do not come to a halt when Naipaul returns to England. As of September 11th, these countries have been facing with a new situation. Will these changes lead to the democratization of Moslem-majority countries or, on the contrary, will they consolidate the power of theocracies in the region?

December 2001

[1] Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey Andre Deutsch, 1981

[2] Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Little Brown, 1998 When Naipaul was in Iran, his Persian translator, Ahmad Miralai was murdered by the IRI Intelligence Service in Isfahan, October 1995. My friend, Ahmad Miralai translated Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Milan Kundera into Persian and was a signatory of "134 Writers"'s manifesto of freedom of expression in 1994. His murder marked the beginning of "serial murders" of Iranian intellectuals carried out by Khomeini's regime in the 1990's. It is unfortunate that V. S. Naipaul does not mention Miralai's murder in his book.

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