Tingis Magazine Logo

Fundamentalism Revisited

More than a story about a young, privileged Muslim man’s gradual drift into rebellion against U.S. policies in the Middle East, Mohsin Hamid’s recently published novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is, in fact, a nuanced study of fundamentalism itself. At first, one gets the impression that the story is about a brilliant Pakistani from a poor aristocratic family who succeeds in getting into Princeton, studies finance, never gets anything below an A, and, upon graduation, lands a job at the prestigious and highly coveted valuation firm, Underwood Samson. Thus, at the tender age of twenty-two, Changez is given his own expense account and American Express credit card, and asked to travel around the world to determine the value of companies for rich investors. Not surprisingly, Changez flies high around Manhattan and falls in love with the perfect elite girl, the delicate, fragile, and literally vanishing Erica, whose life has been arrested, and possibly destroyed, by the untimely death of her first sweetheart, Chris.

The life of Changez is a study of contrasts, not unlike what many Muslim men in the West, or in major urban centers in the Islamic world, like Lahore, the second biggest city in Pakistan, experience. Such cosmopolitan men drink without any visible anguish, take as much pleasure in flirting and making love to beautiful women as any native European or American does, and basically harbor ruthless, competitive instincts when it comes to making money or excelling in a profession. In these ways, they are as Western as could be. But they are not entirely American or European, either—not quite. It takes Changez only a few months of soaring agony over the fate of his homeland in the wake of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 to abandon the American dream and join hands with militants at home to denounce America’s imperial ambitions and the destruction it inflicts on his family, countrymen, and Muslims in general.

From the time he graduates in 2001 to December of the same year, Changez undergoes a transformation as profound as the United States does in the wake of 9/11. His witnesses the destruction of the World Trade Center from the Philippines, whose poor reproach him with their knowing looks, even as he rides like an American tycoon in limousines. No matter how hard he tries to hide behind his American persona, events keep his Muslim identity firmly grounded. When he flies back home, he is separated from his American colleagues and humiliated through multiple searches. The profiling of Muslim men in New York and the United States affects him deeply. As if this were not enough to unsettle the most solid of characters, his country is now being threatened by India, while the United States does nothing to support its ally in the war on terror—Pakistan. Neighboring Afghanistan is soon being bombed. And as Erica’s depression keeps his love beyond his reach, the young financier enters a dark world of suspicion, anger, and fury that inevitably leads him to quit his job and go back to his people. If integration is a state of mind, then the U.S. of the months immediately following 9/11 fails him miserably.

The rise and fall of Changez makes sense when we remember that Changez is smart to begin with. Working for a firm like Underwood Samson would not help him challenge the nouveaux riches back home who undermine his family’s prestige. (His family still retains servants and chauffeurs, despite its lack of money.) His success doesn’t attenuate his sense of guilt about his complicity in America’s policies around the world. Of this, he is dramatically reminded when he tries to value a publishing house in Valparaiso, Chile, only to be reminded by the wise, grandfatherly director, Juan-Bautista, that he is no more than a “modern-day janissary” whose loyalty to his masters will, in the end, undermine his own civilization. The very eye that values companies is now being trained on American society itself. And what Changez sees is not better than what he typically finds in the course of his work—that America, with its pageantry and longing for uncontested power—is as stuck in the past as any company that is ripe for failure. America’s views of itself, in other words, do not correspond to present global realities.

Thus, Changez returns to Pakistan empty-handed but well educated in global affairs. He now understands that finance is at the core of imperialism and instability in his region. He is acutely aware that the United States prefers India over Pakistan–a fact that continues to be true today—and that Pakistan in only a temporary and expedient pawn in America’s larger geo-strategic schemes. So, like many Muslim graduates of American universities, he lectures on finance and speaks out against imperialism. His face is soon caught on camera and becomes part of the “war-on-terror montage.” His fellow activists are falsely accused of killing Americans and sent to what appears like the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. He begins to fear for his life and leads us to wonder whether the American he is telling the story to late at night in Lahore is, in fact, a special agent dispatched to terminate his activities. This is probably an unnecessary bit of suspense, but it is excusable, given that American power exercises so much speculation in the minds of its subjects.

But here is the interesting part. In the novel, only Erica’s father and Jim, the Underwood Samson officer who hires Changez, refer to fundamentalism. Erica’s father (a wealthy man with a penthouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) uses the term to describe one of the many problems Pakistan is facing, while Jim advises Changez to focus on the fundamentals of business and not be distracted by emotions. Changez himself, when he is back in Pakistan, joining hands with different activists, refers to one of the groups as “religious literalists.” And so, to the end of the novel, he never sees himself, or other Pakistanis, as such.

Why, then, is the novel titled The Reluctant Fundamentalist? What kind of fundamentalism are we talking about? No one in the novel (with the exception of the future-oriented firm of Underwood Samson) manages to escape the past—not Erica, not Changez, and not even the United States. Everyone is longing for an identity that cannot be regained, and it is, in fact, this longing that makes people, as well as nations, literally sick. Three years after leaving the United States for Pakistan, Erica and American culture remain an inextricable part of Changez’s identity, and Changez knows full well that one cannot pick and choose what to keep in and keep out. Does his criticism of American power make him a fundamentalist? That is the question. For, if there is any fundamentalism he is most clearly reluctant about, it is the Underwood Samson variety, not the religious type. And so, I am going to think that Changez is more of a reluctant business fundamentalist than he is religious one. There is simply no religion in his life for him to be one, but he certainly gives up his shark’s instincts as a financial analyst to struggle for the freedom of his people.

In this sense, The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks us to think about the very meaning of fundamentalism itself, whether religion has the upper hand in such matters, or whether we can forego the trend altogether. This is what makes the novel of enduring value.

About the Author

Anouar Majid is editor of Tingis.

Learn More >

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated by the editor and may not appear on this discussion until they have been reviewed and deemed appropriate for posting. All information collected is handled in a manner consistent with our privacy policy.