In 1979, the distinguished writer V. S. Naipaul set off for an extensive tour of four Muslim countries. His reports from Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia had a quirky but brilliant quality. In each of his destinations, Naipaul found a surprising contradiction: those intent on rejecting the West in the name of Islam are also adamant about gaining the fruits of the West's achievements.
Nearly two decades later, Naipaul recently retraced his steps and visited the same four countries, sometimes even visiting the same individuals he'd talked to a generation earlier. His quick vignettes, word sketches, and pieces of conversation make Beyond Belief a pleasure to read. His travels this time dwell less on internal contradictions and more on the widespread feeling that things have gone amiss. In Iran, the country of most direct interest to Americans, Naipaul finds that the revolution of 1978-79 has run its course and is virtually defunct. Regulations, Naipaul finds again and again, are everywhere, "deforming people's lives." They have taken the place of spontaneity.
He notes that the government's heavy-handed use of religion has turned many Muslims against their religion. Hypocrisy has become rank: Men grow beards for job applications, to enhance their religiosity, then cut them off. "The word religious rankled with Mehrdad," he notes of a typical young man, a believer in God but a rebel against the many rules His earthly representatives impose. Things have gotten so bad, a most revealing conspiracy theory is making the rounds—that Khomeini was a British agent and "the establishing of the Islamic state in Iran was an anti-Islamic plot by the Powers." In significant ways, Naipaul finds Iran to be an Islamic-flavored version of the Soviet Union. Like residents of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, too, this is a people worn out by their history and their current misery. The country, Naipaul observes, "had been given an almost universal knowledge of pain." And out of this has come not new hope, not new wisdom, but a shattering new nihilism, again reminiscent of the Soviet experience.