Naipul thinks the causes of Sept. 11 are religious, not American foreign policy. (NYT)
October 27, 2001 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Naipul thinks the causes of Sept. 11 are religious, not American foreign policy. (NYT) "There is a passage in one of the Conrad short stories of the East Indies where the savage finds himself with his hands bare in the world, and he lets out a howl of anger. I think that, in its essence, what is happening.The world is getting more and more out of reach of simple people who have only religion. And the more they depend on religion, which of course solves nothing, the more the world gets out of reach."
posted by semmi (36 comments total)
so he is saying that believing in God is useless?

definitely throwing the baby out with the bathwater....
posted by bunnyfire at 6:18 PM on October 27, 2001

"so he is saying that believing in God is useless?"

If thats what he is saying, I would have to concur.
posted by howa2396 at 6:21 PM on October 27, 2001

"You have described the Taliban as vermin."
"No, that's my wife!"

His wife is vermin?
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:33 PM on October 27, 2001

Bunnyfire, I don't think that's what he's saying. It seems he's saying that religion isn't going to provide material goods, or scientific progress, and the people who believe otherwise are very frustrated by the fact that the rest of the world has so much. From the little I've read about Naipul, it seems that he believes religious oppression is retarding the growth of that region, and is largely responsible for the anger there.
posted by Doug at 6:37 PM on October 27, 2001

It was as though up there was a divine supermarket, and at last it had become open to people in the Muslim world. They didn't understand that the goods that gave them power in the end were made by another civilization. That was intolerable to accept, and it remains intolerable.

The Muslim world chose to embrace the values of isolationism, mysticism (see Doug's comment above), and ignorance while Europe pursued reason, science, and the Enlightenment. To a large degree, both societies continue to embrace those values to this day. Both societies are now having to live with their respective choices.

To preempt: I realize that I'm over-simplifying the issue significantly. But you can't deny the broad outlines of history. My argument may be imprecise, but I think that it nevertheless provides some fundamental insight into the root causes of the problem.

By and large, rich people like to talk about responsibility and individual rights because it provides a justification for them to keep it. But always remember that poor people suffer from the same self-interested myopia: they like to talk about unequal power and "social justice" because those concepts provide a justification for them to take wealth from the rich.

I think that the proper question is this: which set of values, once inculcated into the next generation, will provide the greatest incentive for personal growth and financial accomplishment? Collective, social justice? Or individual responsibility?
posted by gd779 at 6:49 PM on October 27, 2001

By the first "it" in my 3rd paragraph, I of course meant "wealth".

Preview button? What preview button?
posted by gd779 at 6:51 PM on October 27, 2001

Actually their religion brought them much glory at one point.
Don't forget in only 100 years after Mohammed's death in 632, his followers had built an empire that stretched from Northern Spain to India. The Alhambra and the Taj Mahal-that's Islam baby. Western science that exploded in the Renaissance owes massive debts to Islamic scholars, from algebra to keeping the light lit in Greece burning through the Middle Ages.

This is the lost glory that bin Laden believes can be restored by a return to the true faith.
bin-laden is wrong in his emphasis on dewesternizing Islam however, and creating theocracy... and Naipul is incorrect if he believes the primary thing keeping them down is Islam.
It's the complete lack of representative democracy, the stultifying and murderous depotisms-that's what keeping the Muslim down.
They can keep Islam for eternity. What they need is a government that shall make no law establishing any religion etc etc etc
posted by quercus at 7:13 PM on October 27, 2001

Then, too, consider who Naipaul is as of the moment...

From The Stranger 10/18/01:

This week, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What a waste. His latest novel, Half a Life, has attracted an army of bad reviews, and the literary community is entertained not by the content of his prose, but his deepening senility, and the outrageous comments he makes about dead writers like Dickens. If Sir Naipaul has any sense of shame, he should do what Cuba Gooding Jr. did with his Academy statue, and offer it to someone who deserves it.

Charles Mudede
posted by y2karl at 7:19 PM on October 27, 2001

Naipaul. Naipaul. Please.

You're right, too, about ObL: the "tragedy of Andalusia" figured in his first statement since the attacks, clearly a reference to Islam's loss of Spain. (Note that in this same statement there was not one word about Palestine.) Slate tried to interpret that and theorized that he meant more the political disunity among Muslims that caused the loss, though I'm not so sure myself. It's no accident that the Catalan coast is the "Arab Riviera", where they build their summer homes and vacation. King Fahd (the now-stroke-ridden ruler of Saudi Arabia), actually built there not only a lavish mosque, but for himself a mansion that is a full-scale copy of the White House. (His brother Crown Prince Abdullah is somewhat less enamored with the United States.)

I'm glad the article focuses on the question of his view of Islam; as one can see it would be easy to charge that he offers a scholarly and eloquent bigotry against a whole religion, though I don't think he feels that way. As he says, he's drawing his opinions from talking to people and learning about them, rather than from academic studies of Islam.

My own view, gd779, is drawn from Jared Diamond (Guns Germs and Steel) and Robert Wright (non-zero -- see also Slate). The former shows how the Fertile Crescent gave birth to civilization by a confluence of water, land, grain, and domesticable animal resources; then Europe was better suited geographically for the growth of post-agricultural society. The Middle East remained feudal and agricultural long past Europe, then as Naipaul notes, oil was discovered and they were given the opportunity to become fabulously rich -- without, in a sense, having earned it.
posted by dhartung at 7:33 PM on October 27, 2001

Edit backtracks. Argh.

And the latter shows how Europe's national structures were uniquely suited to the development and refinement of liberal democracy (and offers the most compelling argument for states' rights in the process that I've seen). More experiments == more competition == more failures == more successes. This overlooks some of the very different political structures in the modern Muslim world, to my mind, but there's a difference of centuries as opposed to decades.
posted by dhartung at 7:44 PM on October 27, 2001

But always remember that poor people suffer from the same self-interested myopia: they like to talk about unequal power and "social justice" because those concepts provide a justification for them to take wealth from the rich.

Where are these poor spokespersons, gd779? The last I heard, bin Laden was a multi-millionaire, if not a billionaire. And I believe the article focused on religion, and not on the sort of classic populist v. economic libertarian politics you talk about. What does that have to do with anything here?
posted by raysmj at 8:03 PM on October 27, 2001

I’d agree with his answer to the “causes” question if he didn’t use the third sentence. Throwing America into the mix just seems out of the blue, otherwise the reply seemed intelligent enough. When times are tough people turn to established power structures. If the government is painfully oppressive, religion offers paradise in the hereafter. The more comforting offer is obivous.

gd, Seriously, if you think social justice is about playing Robin Hood, you simply don’t know what it is.

Also, I wonder if these Muslim countries chose to be colonies of the British Empire or chose to have oppressive dictators as their leaders. There are reasons you can rightly characterize the Mid East as marked by “isolationism” and “mysticism,” but choice has little to nothing to do with it.

“A scholar would look at these people and draw conclusions. I don't do that. The reader looks at these people and makes a pattern, and the pattern depends on the reader.”

Oh, Vidi, you’re putting us on.
posted by raaka at 8:04 PM on October 27, 2001

dhartung: I'm off to do some reading now, following the links and the books that you suggested. History isn't really my strong suit, and I was kind of hoping that my rough intuitions would draw out (from another MeFite) some more complete reasoning. Which it did. And, best of all, perhaps this thread won't turn into yet another "g-d sucks!", "No, God rocks!" discussion.

Seriously, if you think social justice is about playing Robin Hood, you simply don’t know what it is.

raaka: My argument is not about social justice as a concept; I'm describing what I think motivates people to argue for "social justice" in the first place. I'm pointing out that a country's financial interests tend to conveniently correlate with their stance towards social justice vs. individual responsibility. People accuse the rich of being motivated by greed and personal gain, but they often neglect to realize that the poor are perhaps motivated by the same factors. But if you still think that I'm mistaken, feel free to elaborate a bit more.

Additionally, I believe that certain values related to the tension between social justice and individual tend to contribute to economic success. So, rich people tend to be found arguing for individual responsibility both because that particular argument protects their riches and because those particular values were useful in developing their wealth in the first place. The converse is perhaps also true: poorer nations tend to be found arguing for a stronger endorsement of collective values not only because it supports their financial interests, but also because a strong endorsement of collective values tends to lead to lower economic success. (Not that economic success is the sole indicator of value in a society).

Also, I wonder if these Muslim countries chose to be colonies of the British Empire or chose to have oppressive dictators as their leaders. There are reasons you can rightly characterize the Mid East as marked by “isolationism” and “mysticism,” but choice has little to nothing to do with it.

That's perhaps true at specific points in history, but very untrue at the general level. I think that your political bias may be coloring your perspective here. When looking at a society over the course of centuries, you have to attribute a certain amount of their direction to the choice of the people. The people are not mindless sheep who have never had any influence whatsoever in their leadership. They are also not so weak as to be absolutely incapable of opposing or swaying every single person or group who has ever held power. Take the larger perspective.

Where are these poor spokespersons, gd779?...What does that have to do with anything here?

raysmj: I interpreted the 2nd paragraph of Naipaul's answer to the "causes" question to imply that the Muslim nations were the victim of historical forces beyond their control. I particularly drew from the statement that the economic underdevelopment of the Muslic world "was intolerable to accept, and it remains intolerable". In order for something to be an intolerable injustice, it generally must not be a circumstance within the reasonable control of the vicim. It's suppose that it's possible that I'm reading too much into what was probably a minor point, but that's what prompted me to make the comments I did.
posted by gd779 at 8:43 PM on October 27, 2001

Eh, I stopped giving any credit to Naipaul when I found out he enjoyed criticizing Jorge Luis Borges. I was actually outraged that he won the Nobel this year.
posted by Fahrenheit at 8:44 PM on October 27, 2001

gd779: For ordinary and poor people in the countries he's talking about -- actually, such people anywhere -- it's *not* possible without leadership to make much of a difference in re to economic expansion. It's a political, as well as a cultural thing in those nations. And most social change comes from where? Not from the bottom, but in 99.999 percent of all cases from the top, the elite. Even populists in America were better educated than most, and men with contacts, men who knew how to work through the system or to throw it off-balance enough to get their way. Name me one case in history where change absolutely came 100 percent, or even halfway, from "the people," without influence of any leaders or group of elites (i.e., the well-educated, monied, or those belonging to a higher caste or religious order). Sheesh, even the suicide hijackers weren't poor, from all I've ever heard so far. Atta most certainly was not.
posted by raysmj at 9:02 PM on October 27, 2001

I will agree that, having read the article this pass through, that the concept of the converted being more royalist than the King has some merit, and, too, raysmj's comment on the hijackers not exactly being poor hits another nerve--these weren't exactly sons of the desert bedouin fedayeen who flew those planes but rich kids who probably rode first class everytime they ever flew as passengers... I wonder if anyone has ever worked out a equation of atrocities and class origins of the perpetrators...
posted by y2karl at 9:15 PM on October 27, 2001

I wonder if anyone has ever worked out a equation of atrocities and class origins of the perpetrator

An interesting Elizabeth Nickson article from yesterday, on this very topic.
posted by mw at 9:29 PM on October 27, 2001

Ask and ye shall receive, I guess... yet another right winger tilting at pc windmills of her own device--but a Canadian this time...

Having weathered years of having to endure sandalista hypercorrect pronounciations of NEEHK- ha-raw-gua like some bad parody of that scene in Monty Python & The Holy Grail with the knight of Nicht, I can appreciate the comedy of manners involved for anyone who was in college then...

But this beating on the dead horse of academic socialism conflated with the rich young terrorists of essentially feudal cultures with no equivalent of an Enlightenment in their history...No, I'm sorry but there's no flesh left on that carcass, madam
posted by y2karl at 9:48 PM on October 27, 2001

Naipaul says he doesn't need to read the scholars and he doesn't. So he constantly overlooks the great mystery of Islam. When bin Laden laments the loss of Andalusia he's reiterating that mystery.
Under Islam here in Portugal and Spain Jews, Christians and Muslims got along just fine. The arts and sciences flourished like never before. When the "Reconquista" began there's no denying who the barbarians were(us Portuguese and Castilians).
Also, Islam is an inclusive faith, recognizing both Moses and Jesus and, being six centuries more recent than Christianity, was actually more liberal(and hipper, if you'll forgive the anachronism).

So the mystery of Islam is why, even after Ataturk brought Turkey into modernity, disarming and placing Islam much where modern democracies place religion in general, we suddenly see certain minorities give Islam, in the 20th century, a reactionary, violent interpretation.

Writers don't need to read scholars; they write about what they feel, see and hear. But Islamic fundamentalism does exist and it is a modern phenomenon. And so it must be discussed and compared to the overwhelmingly positive accomplishments of Islam in the past.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:03 AM on October 28, 2001

Let me try to explain my thoughts on this. I will probably fail miserably...or not.

To provide a different slant to the discussion: I believe there is a consensus among theologists and philosophers that with the beginning of the industrial revolution, spirituality has been on the decline. I believe that Fundamentalism of any sort is a knee-jerk response to that person's or that culture's perception of the lessening of spirituality.

To define spirituality, I went to M-W. They define "spirit" as 1 : an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms. Though the remedy to this missing spirituality has at times been brutal (to put it very mildly), as we all have seen, I think that not only is it normal, but necessary to have some sort of response. It is part of our nature to defend and protect ourselves from harm and death, which will surely occur if this spirituality is allowed to leave.
Please note that spirituality is not synonymous with belief in Jesus, Moses, Krishna, Mohammed, etc. It has more to do with believing in something, perhaps the inherent goodness we all harbor within ourselves. Belief in a religion certainly does help but is not necessary.

"Our post-modern world has seen a profound disillusionment with the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition, as well as with the scientific materialism that largely superseded it. This disillusionment has become so thorough among some people that we are seeing a reaction against these world-views in the name of the "new." At the root of this reaction may be a wish to restore a lost wholeness, to heal a deep division within the psyche."
From the article Soul Loss & Soul Making by Kabir Helminski. You can read the article yourself right here.

There is no doubt in my mind that science plays one of the most important roles in our lives, and can never be left to one side. Religion is just as important. We must find a way to juxtapose these two facets of our existence so that they exist in harmony: the yin and the yang in our lives.
posted by ashbury at 1:30 AM on October 28, 2001

In other words, I agree with Naipaul. I forgot to mention that, didn't I?
I don't think his view gets the whole picture, though.
posted by ashbury at 1:32 AM on October 28, 2001

Yes, Naipaul. A man of very even-handed analysis...
posted by mmarcos at 3:11 AM on October 28, 2001

If Christianity had been practiced correctly the poor would not have been disenfranchised and countries would still have developed economically, etc.......

The problem is for the most part it has not been practiced correctly.....

Actually, depending on your definition of fundamentalism,
i might not disagree too much with the author's point, as belief in a deity might not even have a lot to do with it.....the MISGUIDED following of a deity would certainly be troublesome-and I am not leaving out my God in this equation......i am sure much of what is done in His name is an utter abomination....
unfortunately the little that I know of the Crusades falls under that category.
posted by bunnyfire at 3:22 AM on October 28, 2001

Martin Wolf, in this Financial Times article, has explained very well the reasons for the economic failure of Islam. When sir Vidia says that the world is increasingly out of reach for simple people who have only religion, he's actually making --- in different words -- the same point.
posted by matteo at 6:50 AM on October 28, 2001

came across these historical comparisons...

the fall of byzantium: a cautionary tale
by sam vaknin

dealing with the islamic reformation: parallels between today and the sixteenth century
by j. bradford delong
posted by kliuless at 8:04 AM on October 28, 2001

And Wolf's article references (with a bad link) Bernard Lewis in the Atlantic: The Roots of Muslim Rage, which has come up in these discussions before.
posted by dhartung at 12:25 PM on October 28, 2001

"I wonder if anyone has ever worked out a equation of atrocities and class origins of the perpetrators".

What I've been wondering is, if anyone has ever worked out a statitical analysis on an international scale of comperative work-ethics and the outcomes in wealth, liberty, and individual, as well as in national, satisfaction.
posted by semmi at 12:29 PM on October 28, 2001

Oh, and you also shouldn't miss Wolf's other source, Anton Lieven in (UK) Prospect: Strategy for Terror.
posted by dhartung at 12:33 PM on October 28, 2001

the UN human development report [indicators] might come close, there's also save the children's state of the world's mothers [mothers' index, girls' investment index].
posted by kliuless at 2:44 PM on October 28, 2001

also it's been mentioned on metafilter before, but matthew white's site is amazing [socio-economic trends, 30 worst atrocities of the 20th century, etc...].

r.j. rummel's site categorizes atrocities since 1900 too.
posted by kliuless at 3:09 PM on October 28, 2001

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East has been a century-long phenomenon that began before the U.S. had any real influence in the region. Much of the recent debate concerning U.S. foreign policy and its effects on anti-Western sentiment and religious fundamentalism completely ignores the internal factors in the region that incubated the movements in the first place. The American tends to date these movements back to the creation of the state of Israel and point to specific American policies that fostered this sort of sentiment. They're absolutely right in stating that these policies exacerbated the sentiment, but they misunderstand the history of the region in stating that these policies *caused* the sentiment.

Many of the groups we see today - the household names like Al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad - are the successors of groups that were formed as a reaction to increasingly secular Ottoman rule. Post-Ottoman secular regimes (particularly in the 1920s) were frequently at odds with the ulema, who in many respects, were responsible for all non-military functions of the state, including healthcare and education. Many of the states, over time, were able to develop a workable compromise with Muslim institutions by ceding certain functions to them and recognizing most aspects of Sharia law through "ijtihad" or the ability to make personal choices between religious and secular laws that conflict. There existed, however, a minority population that, unwilling to compromise, attempted to take over the state and subject it to strict Sharia law often including dogmatic interpretations of the Traditions. Early fundamentalists (1920s) had no real problem with the major tenets of modernism - a powerful state, economic and social progress, etc., - but generally resented manifestations of Western culture that were often associated with the cosmopolitan urban elites they were replacing or competing against. Initially, this resentment was targeted toward Ottoman elites who remained in powerful positions even after the end of the of the empire. The Ottoman elites were soon replaced by Europeans, and in the last quarter century, superpowers - most notably the U.S. (although U.S. involvement began earlier.)

I've read several of articles - particularly by American novelists with no historical context - that boil the root causes of fundamentalist aggression down to American foreign policy or even more simplistically, the Palestinian conflict. The "Orientalist" view seems to be very popular these days, but it needs to be understood that much of this conflict is actually internal and the demonization of the West is a useful tool for volatile regimes that wish to gain internal legitimacy by unifying populations that are too heterogeneous to have anything else in common. Linguistic affinities and Pan-Arabism have failed to produce any substantial results. Pan-Islamic movements have, in many cases, filled the vacuum.
posted by lizs at 3:49 PM on October 28, 2001

lizs, what good sources of the history of Islamic fundamentalism do you recommend?
posted by mmarcos at 4:25 PM on October 28, 2001

Re: readings on historical context:
I would suggest "The Near East Since the First World War: a History to 1995" by Malcolm Yapp. (There may be a more recent version.) It's a textbook read, but a good primer on history in the region. The intro alone provides a good general overview and speaks to everything mentioned in my earlier post.

Some relevant articles you may be able to find on the net -"Islamic Revivalism and the Crisis of the Secular State in the Arab World" (Philip Khoury), "The Transformation of the Ottoman State: 1789-1908" (Kermal Kerpat) "Arab Nationalism in the Age of Islamic Resurgence" (Emmanuel Sivan), "The Palestinians: Tensions between Nationalist and Religious Identities" (Musa Budeiri) Also - terrorism expert David C. Rapoport has done some work on religious terror and has some relevant commentary regarding changing interpretations of Islamic texts.
posted by lizs at 6:44 PM on October 28, 2001

probably (most assuredly!) not as in-depth as lizs' sources, but i thought this article from pacific news service by william o. beeman gave a pretty good summary:

The original leader of the opposition to the West was Jalal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897). Called the "Father of Islamic Modernism, Al-Afghani was educated in Iran, Afghanistan and India. He traveled throughout the Islamic world promulgating an "Islamic reform movement." Using an Islamic ideology helped him to transcend ethnic differences in the region, and preach a message all would understand. He sought to mobilize Muslim nations to fight against Western imperialism and gain military power through modern technology. Al-Afghani claimed that Britain, France and Russia in particular were operating in collusion with Middle Eastern rulers to rob the people of their patrimony through sweetheart deals for exploitation of natural and commercial resources in the region.
posted by kliuless at 8:01 PM on October 28, 2001

lizs: I'm going to bow to your superior wisdom on this, so did Lawrence and company really make such a complete mess in assigning territories to the Hashemites and the Sauds in return for support against the Ottomans? I've read different, non-scholarly accounts that suggests it was as misguided a piece of nation-building as that in the Balkans and central Europe, but it'd be good to hear from someone who's obviously versed in the region's history.
posted by holgate at 9:49 PM on October 28, 2001

this guy is a known islamophobe. Not only that, he hates his African origins (credits India for his 'prize'), and also hates people of colour! Kinda odd, considering he's brown himslef - his confidantes admit he refers to people of colour as 'infies'. Pretty pathetic source.
posted by omar at 8:55 AM on October 29, 2001

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