The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007. 191 pp)

Mohsin Hamid is the author of the novels Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. His fiction has been translated into over 30 languages, given several awards, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, featured on bestseller lists, and adapted for the cinema. His essays and short stories have appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Review of Books. He was born in 1971 in Lahore, where he has spent about half his life, and he attended Princeton and Harvard. Among the other places he has lived are London, New York, and California.

Fear in the Unknown

There is fear in the unknown. Even those people supposedly enlightened or predisposed to a liberal mindset can’t claim to hold a spotless record of unbiased non-judgment of cultures unlike their own. No matter the number of books read, you can’t replace an experience of another culture—the belief, the rituals, the way of thinking that defines the richness of who they are.

The Oscar-winning film, Crash, defines this enigma well when it depicts supposedly enlightened characters reverting to racism whenever instinct kicks in.

In a similarly thought provoking manner, Mohsin Hamid ruminates on the presuppositions of culture between the Islamic world and America with his novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

A Conversation

Set in Lahore, Pakistan, the novel exists as a day-long discussion between a bearded Pakistani man named Changez and a wary American stranger, set in an outdoor cafe.

“Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services” (1).

As the novel unfolds, the reader discovers Changez’s complicated past. A product of American education—Princeton, for that matter. An up-and-comer at a Wall Street start-up. A budding relationship with a beautiful American woman. From an external perspective, Changez has unveiled the American Dream.

Yet, Changez can never adopt the full-scale philosophy of the American. Something leaves him unsettled. In fact, he begins to find clarity during the darkest days in American history.

“I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realized 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 Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased” (72).

In the wake of September 11, Changez encounters sharp obloquy. Any shards of the American dream left clinging to his aura collapse quickly like a creaky shack against a gust of wind. What does a superb education, high paying job, and American woman mean against widespread discontent against your family, your city, and your culture as a whole?

Ultimately, Changez decides:

“I reflected that I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable” (156).

Changez reveals his story to the American, sitting in a café in Pakistan. Understandably in a post-9/11 world, the American becomes increasingly agitated by the insinuations of Changez.

An Attempt at Setting Aside Stereotypes

But the provocation in this story is precisely the point. We all are prone to wide sweeping generalizations of the other. The actions of radical fundamentalists do not define a majority. Not all Christians are hell-bent on murdering abortion doctors. Not all white people love country.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist isn’t for everyone. Some might even find certain motifs offensive. But for me, I appreciate Mohsin Hamid’s intent to create a conversation about what it means to be American, Muslim, or Pakistani—an attempt to remove fear in the unknown. This book makes me think. Isn’t that a good thing?

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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