V. S. Naipaul’s Nobel Prize for Literature was announced on 11 October 2001, exactly a month after Muslim suicide pilots crashed hijacked airliners into the US Pentagon and World Trade Center. The next day, by chance, I saw a 20-year-old paperback copy of Among the Believers lying on the table outside our local secondhand bookshop.
Like everyone else, I had been shocked and baffled by the attacks on America. And although I had read a good deal of the torrent of punditry unleashed by the events of September 11, I was little closer to understanding them. Since I was in the middle of writing a book about the Muslim Uighurs of China, I snatched the paperback up.
How, everyone was asking, could young men intelligent enough to seize and pilot large aircraft be stupid enough to fly them into skyscrapers? How could they hate us so much? The bizarre mentality of suicide bombers, a terrible parody of martyrdom, was inexplicable – until I read Naipaul’s book.
Published in 1981, Among the Believers is the account of a journey through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution. Its subject, the Muslim fundamentalist revival, was not yet much of an issue inside Britain. (Naipaul made the journey again in 1995 for a sequel, Beyond Belief, but this first encounter with Islam proved to be the more revealing.)
I seem to recall there were protests when the book came out. Some Muslims thought a secular Hindu from Trinidad had no business writing about Islam. I was predisposed to trust Naipaul, however, having enjoyed A House for Mr Biswas and other earlier books of his. Also, the sensitivity of his subject was familiar to me. I had myself interviewed prominent British Muslims and had done the rounds of mosques and schools in places like Manchester (where I was accompanied by a charming Asian Muslim policeman) for the purpose of newspaper articles. The protesters seriously misjudged Na
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