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The Closing of the Islamic Mind

A decade ago, Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul knew the dangers of a backward-looking Islam.

12:00 AM, Oct 11, 2001 • By DAVID BROOKS
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TWO OF THE MOST BRILLIANT EXPLANATIONS of Osama bin Laden were written 11 years ago. The first is an essay that appeared in the September 1990 issue of the Atlantic Monthly by Bernard Lewis called "The Roots of Muslim Rage." The second is a lecture delivered by V.S. Naipaul as part of the Manhattan Institute's annual Wriston Lecture series on October 30, 1990. Lewis is one of the great intellectuals of our age, but Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for literature today, so let's review his thinking.

The lecture was called "Our Universal Civilization," but it is really about time and perceptions of time. Those who believe that almost all fundamental political disputes are really arguments between theories of history will find much to their liking.

Naipaul starts by describing a young man he met in Java who wanted to become a poet. Not a lot of money in that, but Naipaul asked him, "Isn't your mother secretly proud you are a poet?" The young man replied, "She wouldn't have even a sense of what being a poet is." In her worldview, all poetry had been written. It was passed down through the ages. Having her son come up and tell her that he wanted to be a poet was akin to having him tell her he wanted to grow up and rewrite the Bible. This woman's conception of history was static, whereas her son had moved into a different culture.

When Naipaul used the phrase Universal Civilization, he was talking about that civilization that believes in the future, in progress, in the unfolding of human accomplishment. That civilization started in Europe, and once had racialist overtones, but it has spread.

It has enemies, however. Naipaul goes on to describe his journeys through non-Arab Muslim lands. What was striking about these places was that they were not originally Islamic. They had been something else. But that pre-Islamic past was everywhere denounced and erased. In the virulent form of Islam that Naipaul found in, say, Iran, the glories of Persia were being denied and abolished. In the beginning was error, apostasy, disgrace. Then came Islam and truth. End of story. "Faith abolished the past," Naipaul reported.

The style of religion he found was a complete way of life. "To possess the faith was to possess the only truth; and possession of this truth set many things on its head. To believe that the time before the coming of the faith was a time of error distorted more than an idea of history. What lay within the faith was to be judged one way; what lay outside of it was to be in another."

Naipaul was born in Trinidad to a Hindu family. At 18 he won a scholarship to Oxford, and he has lived in England since. In other words, he has many different cultures in his heritage, many histories flowing through his veins: Trinidad, India, England, the culture of the global intellectual class.

But the Islamicists he met in his travels repressed all their histories but one. The Taliban recently destroyed a 1,500 year old Buddhist shrine, but the Islamic radicals commit the same sort of vandalism within themselves. They destroy all their inheritances but Islamic fundamentalism.

And when they face a world in which they confront the pluralism of histories, they grow disoriented. Naipaul calls it "philosophical hysteria."

During his trip though Iran, Naipaul met a newspaper editor who had been at the center of the 1979 revolution. Seven months later his son was trying to get a visa to study in the United States, but the hostage crisis was underway and he couldn't get in. This man, who had supported the Khomeini revolution, was lamenting his son's predicament. "It's his future," he said. The father in him could not quite accept that his son would live as a slave to the past.

All of this really helps us understand bin Laden. He and his followers have mutilated themselves, by destroying all but one of their cultural inheritances. They believe in only one history, and it was defined and perfected long ago. Everything since is decline. In bin Laden's crackpot version of history, everything since the decline of the Ottoman empire and its alleged greatness is an additional outrage and insult to God.