V S Naipaul, the famous Nobel lauraete and the one of the best English writer of our times (arguably), is a man who dwells in controversies thanks to his egotistical behavior and guts to call a spade as a spade. Decades before the militant stream of Islam became number one enemy of west, he had embarked on a seven month journey through four Asian Islamic nations. The time was when huge socio political changes were taking place in these countries. Naipaul chronicles them as he saw it in his book Among the Believers.
He starts his journey from Iran, just after Khomeini ousted the Shah through an Islamic Revolution. Though the outer world (read the west) felt that it is a release from the oppression, he senses it as the beginning of a new regime of religious oppression. This is evident from the suppressing of Communists who aided the removal of Shah from power.
Naipaul identifies the effort by fundamentalists to take back the country to conditions similar to the desert cities that gave birth to Islam- a kind of time travel using faith as its vehicle. It may be his colonial upbringing, Naipaul sees only the physical decay all over and is exasperated by the depleting influence of West in the lifestyle of Iran. Another of his complaint is that the rapid return to religious roots is taken with the help of technology, that he feels is Western world's monopoly. Naipaul seems is paradoxical that the struggle to become a desert tribe is made with the help of weapons, communication devices and vehicles that are, as per his view made and supplied by West. An anti western war using western technology!
What Naipaul does in his travels to other countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia is to identify the movements that try to radicalize Islam and make it more unique and identifiable with the religion at its state of origin by imitating the Islamic Revolution in Iran. And he finds such movements in abundance. Naipaul shows some compassion to these movements unlike the disbelief with which he viewed the transitions in Iran under the rule of Khomeinis. He is pained by the efforts to eradicate or eliminate the effect of diverse cultures that contributed to the growth of Islam in its beginning stage in these countries. Like destructing the ancient Hindu linkage to Islam in Indonesia by disregarding the customs with Hindu roots in that region. He is more critical to Pakistan in this regards.
The book succeeds in making the contemporary reader ponder about how it all might have started- 9/11 and the American war on terror. And that I believe is a significant achievement. Whatever you deduce about the ideological inclinations of the book Among the Believers, it is truly a very good travelogue. Naipaul's chronicling of environments and people inhabiting them in different countries is nothing short of magical.