Although your prose has been universally praised, you remain an
object of considerable controversy. You have been charged with
insensitivity and pandering to Western prejudices in your writings
Well, that is the trouble with writing
about Muslim people. There are people of the universities who want
to run you out of town, and they're paid to, and so they pay no
attention to what you actually say.
You have described the Taliban as
No, that's my wife! She's a Pakistani
journalist who for many years wrote a column. She writes from that
kind of perspective.
Are you surprised by Osama bin Laden's
support in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran -- countries you
wrote about in your travel books on Islam?
No, because these are the converted
peoples of Islam. To put it brutally, these are the people who are
not Arabs. Part of the neurosis of the convert is that he always
has to prove himself. He has to be more royalist than the king, as
the French say.
Is this what you mean when you write
about Islam's imperial drive to extend its reach and root out the
Yes. It is not the unbeliever as the
other person so much as the remnant of the unbeliever in one's
customs and in one's ways of thinking. It's this wish to destroy
the past, the ancient soul, the unregenerate soul. This is the
great neurosis of the converted.
What then makes Islam's appeal so
I'll tell you something from the eighth
century. The first province of India to be conquered was the
province of Sindh, which is today part of Pakistan. The king of
Sindh resisted quite well. Then one day it was reported to him how
the invaders said their prayers in unity as one man, and the king
became frightened. He understood that this was a new force in the
world, and it is what in fact Muslims are very proud of: the union
of people. That idea of brotherhood is very powerful.
What about nonfundamentalist Islam?
I think it is a contradiction. It can
always be called up to drown and overwhelm every movement. The
idea in Islam, the most important thing, is paradise. No one can
be a moderate in wishing to go to paradise.
The idea of a moderate state is something
cooked up by politicians looking to get a few loans here and
What do you think were the causes of
It had no cause. Religious hate,
religious motivation, was the primary thing. I don't think it was
because of American foreign policy. 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, is 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. The
oil money in the 70's gave the illusion that power had come to the
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.
Do you think the events of Sept. 11
influenced the committee's decision to give you the Nobel Prize?
I don't know. I thought beginning in 1973
that I was being considered. And then I felt that great campaigns
had been waged against me, quite successfully.
People who were pillorying me as a racist
and anti the third world.
Do you find the controversy around
your work exhausting?
No, it doesn't bother me at all. It's
important for writers to generate this kind of hostility. If a
writer doesn't generate hostility, he is dead.
You have admitted that you are no
historian of Islam. Which scholars of Islam do you rely on?
No, no, no! I travel, and I meet people,
and they tell me about their lives. I don't need to read the
scholars. If I travel in India or Africa, the best way to go is
with a very blank mind and let the facts emerge.
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.