Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Naipaul on Conversions

Psychological Impact of Conversion
Conversation with Sir V.S.Naipual

Thinking aloud, the author observes that the overthrow of the old religions ? religions linked to the earth and animals and the deities of a particular place or tribe ?by the revealed religions is one of the haunting themes of history. In the two narratives, he occupies himself with this subject, though he does not discuss it as such and directly, and limits himself to its Islamic expression in some important Muslim countries. He says that one main feature of these religions is that they take out sacredness from the land and environment of the converts. He remembers his own place of birth in Trinidad which knew no sacred places. Probably the aboriginal people knew them but they had been destroyed and instead of them there were in the plantation colony, "people like us whose sacred places were in other continents," to put it in the language of Naipaul. Enlarging on the observation, he adds that perhaps it is the absence of the sense of sacredness that is the curse of the New World. And perhaps it is this sense of sacredness that we of the New World travel to the old to rediscover.
Later on, he met the same phenomenon in Goa where the Portuguese, representatives of another revealed religion, Christianity, had time to do their work. Haters of idolatry, haters of all that was not of the true faith, levellers of Hindu temples and establishers of the Inquisition and the burning of the heretics, they created here "something of a New-World emptiness, like the Spanish in Mexico." But as one stepped out of Goa, one stepped into the sacred land again. It wasn't political history that made it so. Religious myths touched every part of the land outside colonial Goa. Story within story, fable within fable: that was what people saw and felt in their bones. Those were the myths, about gods and the heroes of the epics, that gave antiquity and wonder to the earth people lived on" (India: A Million Mutinies).
In destroying the sense of sacredness, Islamic fundamentalism is true to its type. But it does allow to one peoples, and only one peoples, the original peoples of the Prophet. their sacred places, pilgrimage and earth reverences; and these sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted peoples.
Closely connected with this is another phenomenon. The converts have also to strip themselves of their past. Nothing is required of them but the purest faith, Islam, submission. Islam, Naipaul adds, "is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism. ',
Naipaul finds Islamic fundamentalism at work wherever he goes: in Iran, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in Malaysia. It has its stages and intensities, but there is one minimum requirement: that the converts learn to lose regard or reject their land of birth, their pagan neighbours and regard them along with women of inferior breed; that they hold their pre?Islamic past and ancestors in contempt. The one unalterable principle is tabligh: that they give up their old identity in every thing, in their beliefs, customs, names, dress.
Naipaul visits Pakistan and finds the same forces at work there too. Unlike Iran, Pakistan still retains important fragments of the past in its dress, customs, ceremonies, festivals and social organization. But it means no relaxation, no relief for the people. It only means that there is much more to do for fundamentalists, much more to deny and repudiate and change.
Similarly, Naipaul finds that in Pakistan though most people are converts, to them their ancient "land is of no religious or historical importance, its relics are of no account; only the sands of Arabia are sacred." Their concept of history has completely altered and that alteration has inevitably diminished the intellectual life of the country. All the history of the ancient land has ceased to matter; in the school history books, the history of Pakistan has become only an aspect of the history of Islam. The Muslim invaders, and especially the Arabs, have become the heroes of the Pakistan story. Naipaul regards as " a dreadful mangling of history", a "convert's view" of history. He says that history in Pakistan "has become a kind of neurosis. Too much has to be ignored or angled, there is too much fantasy. "
Naipaul meets the same phenomenon in Indonesia, almost at the limit of the Islamic world. The country was until recently a cultural and religious part of Greater India and Islam came late on the scene. As a result, the country is rich in the monuments of the pagan past but nothing outside or before the faith was to be acknowledged, not even a great Hindu?Buddhist monument like Borobudur, one of the wonders of world.
While their objection to these relics is Islamic, some fundamentalists have learnt to clothe it in more acceptable, socialistic terms. One of them said that the money that was spent on Borobudur could be used to feed "hungry Muslims." One important criticism of the Government by the fundamentalists was that the Indonesian embassy in Canberra looked like a Hindu building.
The same wind blows in Malaysia. In the new climate to be a Malaysian is to be a Muslim. Others, the Chinese Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus suffer many disabilities
The "convert" is more than a descriptive name. In the hands of Naipaul, it has become an important concept. Though on one side it stands for aggression, on the side of victims, it stands for self?alienation, for estrangement from one's own people ? a more important component of the concept. The converts have a special psychology. They became converts under great pressure; but subsequently they solve the problem by pretending that the their conversion was voluntary'. Their forefathers were defeated and humiliated; but they overcome this feeling by identifying themselves with the victors and the aggressors. Even after conversion the pressure continues, they try to prove they are more loyal than the king himself; they become ardent champions and standard?bearers of Islam. In Iran, they think the Arabs are not sufficiently Muslim, and it is Iran's manifest destiny to keep Islam's flag aloft.


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