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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 about Islam.
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 vermin.
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 unbeliever?
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 potent?
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 there.
What do you think were the causes of Sept. 11?
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 Islamic world.
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.