The Reluctant Fundamentalist


A bright young Pakistani man receives a scholarship to study business at Princeton University in the United States. He completes his degree, achieving an A-grade in each subject, before being quickly recruited by a boutique New York firm and becoming part of the Manhattan corporate and cultural landscape. He strikes up a relationship with an emotionally troubled but wealthy and highly-sought-after Anglo-American woman.

It is September 2001. The young man is sent by his company to the Philippines on assignment. There, he begins to enjoy his status as an American, looking down upon the locals even if they are men of his father’s age. After work one day, sitting in his Manila apartment, the young man switches on the TV.

I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realised that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one and then the other of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.

This young man is Changez, the main character and narrator in Mohsin Hamid’s best-selling novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Mohsin Hamid. Image by  ed kashi in old anarkali, lahore.

Changez is the indigenous Pakistani pronunciation of ‘Genghis,’ the somewhat Right-of-centre Mongolian chap who, together with his hordes, smashed through Central Asia and the Middle East about 800 years ago. They had a wonderful time looting, burning, pillaging, massacring and raping. Not even their devotion to Buddhism could stop the Mongols’ sadistic party. They destroyed Baghdad and then Damascus the New York and London of their era.

On reaching the Mediterranean, half the Mongol army marched south, almost making it to Cairo as they suffered their first defeat at the hands of the slave dynasty of Egypt known as the Mamluks. The other half rode north to Anatolia and conquered the place. Then, legend has it, a disciple of Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi impressed their leader so much that the Mongol commander converted to Islam. His entire entourage soon followed. Islam brought the Mongol party to an end.

As Buddhists, the Mongols conquered just about everywhere except India. After their conversion to Islam, the Mongols intermarried with various Turkish and Persian tribes. Their descendants became known as ‘Mughals,’ and eventually did conquer India. They were my ancestors, and quite likely Changez’s.

Mughals were never known to be a terribly observant bunch of Muslims. Their greatest king of India, Akbar, decided to start his own religion. He called it Din-i-Ilahi the Divine faith. Conveniently, he appointed himself prophet. Akbar’s new faith was devoted to ecumenical tolerance, which he evidenced by throwing into prison any Muslim religious scholar he could find opposed to his new religion.

The Mughals happily engaged in all the nasty stuff forbidden by Islam alcohol, illicit drugs, the flesh of women (and sometimes men and boys) one didn’t intend marrying. Even today, in many parts of Indian Muslim (and therefore, by extension, Pakistani) society, labelling someone a ‘Mughal’ suggests they aren’t exactly Taliban material.

Changez is the Pakistani many Westerners don’t imagine when they think of Pakistan. Yet he is the type of Pakistani I am most familiar with educated, middle-class, secular-minded, English-speaking, well-adjusted, professionally successful. He is hardly a raving mullah, his beard more evidence of chronic laziness than religiosity. He is quite happy to share drinks with his colleagues and with his girlfriends. He feels quite comfortable fitting into the yuppie corporate world.

John Howard would wish more Muslims were like Changez incidental Muslims. Changez regards himself as more than just tolerant he is cosmopolitan, free of anti-Western (or anti-anything) feelings. I’ve met hundreds of Changezes in the United States, Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. So I could just imagine Changez’s horror to discover that he felt a kind of sick satisfaction watching his TV screen on the evening of 11 September 2001.

A painting depicting Mughals

Why would a man with Changez’s upbringing experience such feelings watching many people (including hundreds of South Asian Muslims) dying in this single event? Is it because he is part of the grand cabal of evil, medieval, fanatical, Islamic fundamentalist, Muslim extremist, Islamist terrorist cells who form part of the gigantic plot to destroy the West a plot so secret that only far-Right cultural warriors seem to have discovered its existence?

Hamid’s novel explores the complex historical, cultural and psychological dominos falling in Changez’s life that brought him to retain a lingering resentment of the nation that embraced him in its ‘American Dream.’ Our post-9/11 political correctness imposes on us the conclusion that for Changez to have even a hint of such resentment is enough to classify him as a raving religious nutcase.

Yet Changez never exhibited any signs of overt and extreme religiosity. In fact, he doesn’t even exhibit sympathy for the cause of the September 11 hijackers (at least he hasn’t thus far, but then I’ve just passed the book’s halfway mark). So why should he turn his back on the American Dream and return to his home town of Lahore?

To find out more about Changez, I met Mohsin Hamid last Tuesday. Barely three hours earlier, he’d flown in as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He was one of the Festival’s main drawcards, and could well be described as an accidental novelist. Like Changez, Hamid grew up in Lahore before moving to the US to study law at Harvard. His original plan was to return and practise constitutional law in Pakistan, but political instability kept him in the US, where he found work as a management consultant in New York.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Hamid’s second novel. It was his attempt to take a Western reader into the mind of one type of Eastern response to the September 11 tragedy. Hamid wanted to ‘explore the attitudes some Muslims have to the US that really trouble me. Changez isn’t me, but I see some of his attitudes in some educated secular middle-class Pakistanis.’

At the same time, Hamid doesn’t regard Changez’s response as typically Pakistani or Muslim it isn’t a spiritual or religious or even a cultural response. Rather, Hamid describes it as ‘a political and psychological journey which could just as easily have been experienced by a Brazilian or a Filipino or anyone enamoured by and yet still resentful of American dominance.’

Hamid was somewhat disturbed by attempts of some neo-conservative cultural warriors to paint him as an apologist for terror. Someone on the Opinion Page at The Oz cut and pasted an excerpt from an interview Hamid had with Phillip Adams and smothered it with the headline: ‘It was understandable to smile as the twin
towers fell.’ Hamid was described as ‘compar[ing]September 11 to the defeat of our cricketers.’

‘I cannot understand these people,’ Hamid responded.

We have them in England as well. They live nowhere near America and probably only visited there once. Yet they think they are somehow America’s emotional guardians and attack anyone they think isn’t unquestioningly pro-American enough. I’ve toured 15 cities across the US promoting the book. Not even in Dallas, Texas, did I have to hear this stuff. If the book was a blatantly anti-American polemic, you’d think the Americans would have been the first to lynch me.

If Changez’s emotional response to September 11 is so common, and if anti-American and anti-Western sentiment is so widespread, do we have anything to fear? Hamid’s brutal response should give even hardened American idolisers some cause for optimism:

What keeps us all relatively safe around the world is that some people may resent or even hate our success or our politics, but few people actually want to kill us. We only get killed by psychopaths or people caught up in a cycle of violence, like an Iraqi civilian taking revenge against US soldiers in response to his mother being killed during a US raid on his neighbourhood.

So why did Hamid choose fiction to explore such sensitive political and cultural themes? After all, he has published opinion pieces and essays in leading publications such as the New York Times and The Independent (UK).

‘As a novelist, my job is to complicate what others tend to simplify. While others condemn Changez, I try to understand him in all his complexity.’

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