The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A young Pakistani goes to America, becomes caught up in the events of September 11, and then returns to Pakistan to organize anti-American protests. This is the storyline of Mohsin Hamid's new novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. By Claudia Kramatschek

photo: Claudia Kramatschek
Born and bred in Lahore, educated at Harvard and Princeton, now based in London, England - Mohsin Hamid

​​Mohsin Hamid's tale fits right in with current debates about the radicalization of young Muslims. But Hamid, born in Lahore in 1971 and located in London since finishing his studies at Princeton, has too much experience wandering between different worlds to fall into a simple pattern of describing a "clash of civilizations."

He demonstrated this already in his first novel Moth Smoke (2000), which took a critical insider's look at the vicissitudes of Pakistani society.

Now the author has turned his sharp eye on America – by way of looking once again at Pakistan, or, more precisely, the hectic, dusty terrain of the Anarkali bazaar in the heart of old Lahore.

A classic tale of alienation

An unnamed American and a talkative Pakistani meet up at the bazaar. The Western visitor eyes his bearded opponent with suspicion, well aware that America is at war with Islamic forces across the world (the novel is set in the present). Their brief encounter turns into hours, and at the end of the day we don't know much more about the mysterious American, but we have heard the entire life history of thirty-year-old Changez.

And his story reads like a classic tale of alienation: a young Pakistani who has become alienated from the promise of the West through a confrontation with that which has made him into an enemy: his Muslim identity.

Changez lived the American dream for four and a half years. After studying at Princeton, he finds a job at one of the leading consultant firms in New York. Gains and losses, the economic fundamentals of the new world, determine his thinking and actions from this point on. But his thoughts and actions are about to change.

Changez is torn between the desire to belong and his fear of the cultural task he sets himself in a country that simultaneously opens up opportunities and takes them away – above all his pride in his heritage.

Pondering on America's imperial hubris

Shame and anger thus increasingly muddy his enjoyment of the American way of life, ultimately turning him into the eponymous "reluctant fundamentalist." Mohsin Hamid explains the double meaning of the title: "He is a reluctant fundamentalist because his environment sees him as a religious fundamentalist, though he isn't one. He, on the other hand, rejects the economic fundamentalism of the business world to which he belongs – a world oriented solely around gains and losses. For me, this is what fundamentalism is: looking at the world from a single perspective, thereby excluding all other perspectives."

Fundamentalism is not necessarily a religious phenomenon," Hamid goes on to say. "Isn't everyone torn in some way? One person will solve the problem by accepting his torn state. Another will insist on only one side and says: This is everything I am. This is what the novel gets at: it shows that fundamentalism is not just what we imagine it is."

Those who anticipate a novel about the radicalization of a Muslim who has been disappointed by the West will find something quite different, and that's a good thing. Hamid – who worked in New York as a consultant and since September 11 has been subject to harsh questioning every time he enters the country – uses the perspective of his Pakistani alter ego to take a critical look at America's imperial hubris and it's posture as the world's police force.

When the events of September 11 then take their toll on Changez' life and America soon invades Afghanistan, Changez rejects the American dream altogether – thereby sharpening his newfound awareness that as a Muslim he had been serving the wrong cause.

The importance of being proud

"Pride and nostalgia," says Hamid, "are for me the most important human factors in the twenty-first century. In the Muslim world the idea of a glorious past predominates. This is nostalgia – but it arises when we feel threatened and insecure. And this is part of our world because so much is changing right now. Pride, on the other hand, is important because in a globalized world many different histories become intertwined. And some of these are presented as the history of the victors.

"But the people on the losing side don't really see themselves as losers. They believe in their country, in their nation. The problem is, the two sides had never before encountered one other. Today they can both see themselves on television. And suddenly the two sides collide. This is what it's all about: respecting the fact that the others also have their pride. And this sense of pride is what currently predominates in the Muslim world."

Hamid is, however, clever enough not to use his protagonist as a mouthpiece for the entire Muslim world. If anything, Changez is an individual example of failed integration despite the goodwill to integrate. What become most apparent is that distrust and fear wreck havoc on both sides of the world – and that the question of friend vs. foe lies in the eye of the beholder.

Right up to the end of the novel, Hamid intentionally leaves open the question of who represents good and who evil in this battle of wills. According to Hamid, "The real question is: Will the human race find the empathy we need if we are to live together. We have no other choice but to rid ourselves of our fear of the other. And we can only hope this happens soon – and that the past few years only represent a last moment of fear before we gain in courage."

Claudia Kramatschek

© 2007

Translated from the German by Christina M. White