The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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.

Book: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Region: South Asia (Pakistan)
Genre: Fiction
Length: 191 pp.
Difficulty: Easy

Global Context Series (South Asia): Freedom at Midnight

Editor’s Note: This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Book: Freedom at Midnight
Region: South Asia
Countries: India & Pakistan
Length: 572 pages
Difficulty: Intermediate

At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, India was set free from British rule and at the same time was partitioned into the two autonomous nations of India and Pakistan. In Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre deliver a fast-paced and intimate account of these events, focused on India’s last British viceroy Louis Mountbatten and India’s spiritual leader Mahatma Ghandi, but laced with stories about the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Hindu statesman Jawaharlal Nehru, and other major players.

The authors view this series of events as the greatest and most complex “divorce” in history. In the first chapter, the authors write, What should have been Britain’s finest hour in India seemed destined to become a nightmare of unsurpassed horror. She had conquered and ruled India with what was, by the colonial standard, relatively little bloodshed. Her leaving threatened to produce an explosion of violence that would dwarf in scale and magnitude anything she had experienced in three and a half centuries there.

This divorce, and the ensuing bloodbath, would center on the ages-old rivalry between India’s Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. The leaders of India’s 100 million Moslems now demanded that Britain destroy the unity she had so painstakingly created and give them an Islamic state of their own. The cost of denying them their state, they warned, would be the bloodiest civil war in Asian history. Just as determined to resist their demands were the leaders of the Congress Party, representing most of India’s 300 million Hindus. To them, the division of the subcontinent would be a mutilation of their historic homeland, an act almost sacrilegious in its nature. Britain was trapped between these two apparently irreconcilable demands.

In response to the demands of Jinnah and the Muslim league, Britain decided to partition India so that Muslims would have their own country. However, this concession did not allow them to circumvent a bloody civil war. When the clock struck midnight on August 15, the people of India celebrated independence, but their euphoria was shattered when Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs killed one another until the streets ran red with their blood. In the face of some of the most appalling massacres in human history (leaving several hundred thousand dead), the authors show the efforts of Gandhi, the Mountbattens, Nehru, and others, to restore some semblance of peace and order. Gandhi, in the last great act of his life before being assassinated by a group of Hindu radicals, embarked upon “fasts to death,” and was able to bring some peace to the isolated spots where he could be present personally. But ironically, it was the British, Indian, and Pakistani armies that had to be brought in to maintain order.

The authors manage to leaven the gruesome historical account with lively and sometimes humorous character portraits of the major characters. For example, early in the third chapter, we learn of Gandhi’s half-naked visit to the King of England: He had walked off his steamer in his loincloth and carrying his bamboo stave. Behind him there were no aides-de-camp, no servants, only a handful of disciples and a goat, who tottered down the gangplank right after Gandhi….To the awe and astonishment of a watching British nation, Mahatma Ghandi walked into Buckingham Palace to take tea with the King-Emperor dressed in a loincloth and sandals….Later, when questioned on the appropriateness of his apparel, Ghandi replied with a smile, ‘The King was wearing enough for both of us.’ We learn of Gandhi’s daily life-of his vow to observe one day of silence each week to preserve vocal cords, of his daily prayer meetings and reading of the Bhagavad Gita, of his “fasts unto death” as a means of nonviolent resistance, of his habit of having a saltwater enema once a day, and so forth.

This brings us to the major flaw in the authors’ account. From early on in the story, it is clear that Gandhi is the hero of Collins’ and Lapierre’s account, while “religious antagonism” is the adversary. The authors see Gandhi, with his prayer meetings, fasting, and non-violent protests, as the Messiah of India, the solution to India’s (and perhaps the world’s) problems. Indeed, the final chapter, chronicling Gandhi’s death, is entitled, “The Second Crucifixion.”

The authors certainly are correct that religious antagonism is a bad thing, and they are right that Gandhi lived a more peaceful life and is a better character, than the other characters in this narrative. However, they fail to see the more central problem-the evil lurking in the souls of all humanity, and a man like Gandhi cannot himself be the remedy for such evil. Such an evil is deep and powerful and can be broken only by God Himself. While the authors speak of India’s partitioning as the great divorce, we know that the greater divorce happened at the Fall, that the Adversary of adversaries is Satan himself, and the true Messiah is Jesus Christ, who came to take away the sins of the world and who will one day bring a new heavens and a new earth, where there will be no more war. It is through Him, and through Him alone, that our world will see peace.

Further, Freedom at Midnight is not accurate at all points and the authors sometimes make novel or unique assertions without providing references. Nonetheless the book is very helpful. The reader receives a broad-brush overview of one of the most important years in world history as well as a picture of South Asia’s (1) mind-boggling diversity, including 15 official languages and 845 dialects; (2) the pervasive folk spirituality of its people; (3) the deep and abiding inter-religious conflict; (4) the abiding effects of colonial rule; and (5) intimate and illuminating portraits of several of South Asia’s most influential and enduring heroes.