The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Reviewed by: Bruce Riley Ashford
If you are interested in a slim little novel that is both informative and inflammatory, you have found your book. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about one young Pakistani’s initial infatuation with America and his ensuing disillusionment. It is an allegory meant to instruct Americans about the global community’s perceptions of their country.
The hero is Changez, a young Pakistani from Lahore. Hamid frames the story by means of an encounter in Lahore between the hero Changez, and an American stranger. Changez recognizes the “American-ness” of a stranger in his city, invites him to have a cup of hot tea, and proceeds to tell him the story of his life. The conversation occurs a few years after 9/11.
Changez tells how he graduated from Princeton and immediately was hired by Underwood Samson (read “U.S.”), a NY firm of business analysts that specializes in taking over failed businesses. He was quite infatuated with America until 9/11. In the wake of that ugly day, he slowly but surely becomes disillusioned with America.
In addition to the xenophobic paranoia he witnesses, he speaks of the uniquely American sense of superiority. He notes that his fellow students at Princeton were, for the most part, from wealthy American families and that this seemed to give them license to be brusque with, and condescending toward, men and women who were the age of their parents. For him this was unthinkable.
Changez began to view the American elite as a unique class of fundamentalist, belonging to the right wing of the Capitalist religion. It was this religious fundamentalism that, in part, motivated numerous interventions around the globe: “I had always resented,” he writes, “the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea…the Middle East, and now Afghanistan: in each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed my mother continent of Asia, America played a central role.” Even “aid” and “sanctions” were sometimes in the service of this fundamentalism: Indeed, “finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.”
The young Pakistani eventually realizes that he has become a janissary. (Janissaries were captured Christian boys who were trained and employed as mercenaries against their own people, in the service of the Ottoman empire.) “I spent that night considering what I had become. There really could be no doubt: I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn! I had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion for those…whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain.”
Throughout the story, Changez narrates the twists and turns of his love affair with a young Princeton grad, Erica (think “Am-Erica”). Though she likes Changez, ultimately Erica has not recovered from the death (by lung cancer) of a former boyfriend, Chris. Her mourning becomes obsessive and eventually neurotic. She is submitted to an institution, and eventually disappears. Hamid uses her neurotic obsession with her past to surface America’s own “dangerous nostalgia” for her own past, as well as Changez’ homesickness for Lahore.
At the end of the novel, we find that Changez has returned to Lahore, grown a beard, and otherwise returned to his socio-cultural roots in Pakistan. Ultimately, Hamid is trying to say that America has her own version of fundamentalism (based on a worship of the dollar) and that the United States is in need of some…wink, wink…giggle, giggle…changez.
I will limit my review of the book to a couple of points. The first is that Hamid’s narrative is a quick and enjoyable read that provides insight into the perception many have of the United States of America. Just as Hamid portrayed “Underwood Samson” as a firm that specialized in hostile takeovers of weak and failing companies, there are many who view the United States as a country that specializes in hostile interventions and takeovers of weaker countries. Just as Hamid’s “Underwood Samson” was motivated by the Dollar and did not care if its takeovers ruined the lives of those caught in the middle, so many view the United States as being motivated by the Dollar (rather than by benevolence or the desire to promote freedom), not caring if its interventions and takeovers harm innocent bystanders. While Hamid’s allegory cannot even begin to do justice to the complexities of global politics, and in some ways actually does injustice, it is a decent vehicle for helping his readership understand perceptions of the United States.
Second, Hamid’s novel reminds us that God has brought the nations to our doorstep. The United States is home to hundreds of thousands of fellow image-bearers who are immigrants from such countries as Pakistan, India, or North Africa. We are told that most immigrants are never invited into the home of an American and, in light of this, we have a divine opportunity to rectify the situation.
Third, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of scores of books dealing with the problems and challenges that confront the global community in the 21st century. We should keep in mind that, as a general rule, these sources deal with the proximate causes of our problems and challenges, but rarely with the ultimate cause. We might keep in mind that the ultimate cause of the problems on our globe is neither Islamic nor Capitalist fundamentalisms. Rather, it is the evil embedded in the human heart. It is a deep and an ugly evil, able to be remedied only by the Creator himself.