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August 19, 2018


V.S. Naipaul and Samir Amin — one a celebrated man of letters and the other an outstanding political economist — recently passed away one after the other. They were of similar ages and agitated our minds in their own particular ways. Although their disciplines differed greatly, in terms of ideas and the thought processes they not only espoused but epitomised, two divergent streams of contemporary thinking emerged from these intellectuals who were rooted in the third world, but out of choice or circumstance settled in the first. As Naipaul says for himself, he moved from the periphery to the centre. His ancestors were indentured Indian labour brought by the British to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery. After initial schooling in Trinidad, he was sent to study at Oxford. Later, he made Britain his home.

With 16 works of fiction and a similar amount of non-fiction to his credit, he had this uncanny ability to write masterful prose with a gripping narration of human stories that would overawe the reader. But the moment an involved reader scratched the surface, Naipaul’s disenchantment with his native past and an inherent veneration for the Western imperial order would appear. From A House for Mr Biswas and The Mimic Men in fiction, to An Area of Darkness and Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey in non-fiction, the self-glorifying Anglophile who broke his chains of poverty and ignorance looks at the non-Western world with the binoculars of suspicion and loathing. This is more obvious and direct in his non-fiction where, in his essays, travel writings, journalistic pieces or lectures, there is contempt and disappointment for all peoples and cultures of the formerly colonised world — India, Africa or the Caribbean — and a particular disdain for Islam and Muslims.

One simple example of Naipaul’s views is his famous 1992 address made at the Manhattan Institute of New York in the United States on the topic of ‘Our Universal Civilisation’. Towards its conclusion and after a detailed commentary on the Arab invasions of the last millennia and an apologetic marginal mention of European colonialism, he — maintaining his claim of being irreligious — even goes to the extent of praising the Christian faith. Contrary to his native Hinduism and Islam, he thinks that European Christianity helped shape the modern Western values leading to a universal civilisation. This civilisation is now creating inclusionary spaces for all across the world. Edward Said so rightly called Naipaul a witness to the Western prosecution. Naipaul’s terrible lopsidedness in his praise for Western values and barefaced Eurocentrism were second to none among the writers in his league. Eurocentrism — the worldview centred on the superiority of, and bias towards, Western Europe — was consolidated as an idea and coined as a term by Samir Amin.

Amin’s book and articles on Eurocentrism constitute a path-breaking effort to understand Western imperialism and its continuity. Amin was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and a French mother. He studied at Port Said in Egypt before arriving in Paris for further education. He joined the French Communist Party, but left it after becoming a critic of Soviet Marxism. Besides contributing research and polemical articles and commentaries, Amin published 30 books on understanding the hegemony of capitalism from a fresh and independent perspective without refraining from critiquing Marx’s own work. Amin’s major works include Accumulation on a World Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Underdevelopment and Eurocentrism: Modernity, Religion and Democracy — A Critique of Eurocentrism and Culturalism. A champion of dependency theory and world systems analysis, Amin made a formidable contribution to international political economy through an astute analysis of contradictions, inequalities and social conflicts in the world. He understood that Political Islam has always found consent among the bourgeoisie of Muslim countries, including Pakistan. This tension with the West only creates an acceptable impasse of cultures and offers no obstacle to the developing imperialist control over the world system.

Rest in peace Naipaul and rest in power Amin.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 19th, 2018