Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez: an ambivalent “lover of America”, by Dr Jennifer Minter

Inspired in part by the effects and aftermath of the World Trade Centre bombing (9/11/2001), The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid depicts a dramatic monologue between Changez and an American stranger. After rejecting a stellar career as an economic fundamentalist at Underwood Samson in the United States, Changez returns to Pakistan as a lecturer. Hamid relies on an unusual monologue structure to expose the barriers that are often erected between people owing to entrenched cultural, racial or social differences. Similar barriers symbolised by the dead rival Chris also become apparent in Changez’s romantic attachment to Erica. These problems prompt a great deal of soul-searching; they eventually lead to Changez’ return to Pakistan and his desire to adopt a visionary dual perspective as a preferable means of dealing with his conflict.

The narrative structure: a one-sided monologue
Hamid structures the novel as a one-sided monologue whereby Changez undertakes a conversation with an American stranger whom he meets at a cafe in the Old Anarkali district. A degree of suspense grips the conversation as Changez mediates and interprets the tension that at times swirls between these two strangers from different lands and different cultures. Owing to the chance nature of their encounter, Hamid shows how both are uneasy about each other’s motives, and both, especially the American, seem to jump to conclusions based on the appearance of their ethnic and cultural differences. It is unclear throughout the monologue whether or not the American “stranger” is a possible “undercover assassin”. Also, the American’s reactions and anxieties reveal a person who seems to assume that “all Pakistanis” are “potential terrorists”. When the American is startled by the loud noise in the distance, which is probably the faulty exhaust system of the rickshaw, he reveals his instinctive suspicion of Changez. He acts as if it were the pistol sound in the distance. He evidently looks over his shoulder because Changez asks, “is somebody following us” (200). Changez constantly draws attention to his “friend’s” propensity to “reach under his jacket”.

Later in the conversations, the “friend” is surprised that Changez admits that he drinks alcohol, because he assumes from his beard that he would be a strict fundamental Muslim. “Perhaps you misconstrue the significance of my beard, which I should in any case make clear. In truth, many Pakistanis drink” (61). In this case, Hamid seeks to challenge the stranger’s assumptions, particularly those relating to Muslim customs, habits and attitudes and accordingly, also challenges the readers’ assumptions about stereotypes. Given the backdrop of the 9/11 World Trade centre bombings, Hamid also seems to suggest that the focus on stereotypical differences which creates suspicion and fear can, in volatile and extreme circumstances, lead to aggression and violence.

The themes of fundamentalism
Fundamentalism is a term that refers specifically to any religious movement which stresses the literal application of its core principles. With regards to Muslims or the religion of Islam, the term “fundamentalism” often carries negative connotations and suggests a reactionary and radical brand of Islam. (It is associated with the strict adherence to medieval religious rules and often is associated with women’s oppression and the wearing of the burqa). In this sense, Hamid reclaims the term “fundamentalism” and applies it to economic institutions such as Underwood Samson, because of their focus on economic core principles. The firm focuses on the “fundamentals”; employees are considered “assets” and are rated according to their financial worth to the company; the company values above all else “maximum productivity” and there is constant focus on cost calculations and the economic drivers that determine an asset’s value. Contrastingly, Hamid depicts Changez as a Muslim who is deliberately not “fundamental” in the traditional sense; he avoids alcohol, and embraces many western customs.

Changez’s growth and personal journey
For Changez, a graduate from the prestigious Princeton University, a career at Underwood Samson epitomised the hallmarks of the American dream – success, opportunity, wealth and status. Even Changez’s anglicised accent is associated with “wealth and power”. He sees himself as “immediately New Yorker”. His role at Underwood Samson is the pinnacle of his professional career and the culmination of Changez’s “personal American dream”. “This is a dream come true”. Jim is attracted to his competitive strain; he is “hungry”. On the surface, Changez’s relationship with Erica captures his successful career and his desire to belong to sophisticated American society. At the same time though, Changez’s difficult rivalry with the dead lover forever distances himself from Erica/America and makes it impossible for him to securely belong. Earlier at Princeton, there were signs of unease. For example, Changez gives the impression that he is respectable and successful; he conducts himself like “a young prince, generous and carefree”, but he dissembles. (He takes three on-campus jobs to be able to support this image of respectability; it does not come easily or naturally.) In this sense, the rivalry symbolises Changez’s difficult and ambiguous relationship with Erica and America. For example, he sacrifices his own personality when he pretends to be Chris when lovemaking which alludes to the tension that plagues Changez during his time in America.

The World Trade Centre bombings as well as Changez’s discussions with Juan Battista in Chile mark a turning point in his personal and professional journey that eventually lead to his return home. Although a “lover of America”, Changez concedes that he returns home a “changed” person. Namely, his role as an economic fundamentalist at Underwood Samson leads to a reappraisal of his career based on his disheartening recognition of its consequences; also his love affair with Erica becomes just as problematic and following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, Changez is determined to reject a system that he believes is harming his cultural and racial identity. His view of himself, Pakistan’s place in the world, as well as his experience with the debilitating consequences of Erica’s nostalgia all impact upon the development of his sense of self.

Whilst at the pinnacle of his professional career, Changez experiences grave self doubts and is challenged by Juan Bautista, to identify himself as a “modern day janissary” – someone who is erasing their own culture. (During the Middle Ages, young Christian boys fought with the Muslims to undermine their culture. Their problem was that they “had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”) The similarities between the janissaries and Changez’s role at Underwood Samson plunge him “into a deep bout of introspection”. “Of course I was struggling. Of course I felt torn!” The fact that he sees himself as “a modern-day janissary” and a “servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading country with a kinship to mine” rocks his emotional foundations. Such institutions, he realises, have no regard for people or the consequences of debt reduction. They adhere to principles of greed, materialism and ruthless asset management. By spreading its economic power, American companies such as Underwood Samson are undermining local cultures such as his own. He realises this is dangerous because he will eventually lose his roots and his place in the world.

After the World Trade Centre Changez becomes more determined in his opposition to the creed of economic fundamentalism. His ironic smile (“my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased”) draws attention to his different values and to the fact that he does not wholeheartedly identify with the victims. He is aware of the “symbolism” of the attack and the fact that America has been “brought to her knees”. Ironically, America is suffering from the very devastation that it inflicts upon its enemies. (He reflects upon the poetically just situation of “American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies”).

Henceforth, Changez begins to wear a beard as a symbol of his renewed sense of pride in his Muslim roots and his awareness of his identity as an ex-janissary; he eventually resigns from the company – a sign of his rejection of a system that prioritises economic fundamentalism, a system that is competitively focussed on “meritocracy”, that reduces its employees as well as its clients to business “assets” or liabilities. Their creed values “above all else maximum productivity” and there is no place for “second best”. ). Also, by wearing the beard, Changez challenges his work colleagues to reflect upon their suspicions. Their baseless reactions confirm Changez’s view that others are guilty of typecasting him according to his appearance. As he becomes “deeply angry”, he becomes the target of whispers, innuendos and stares. After, the September 11 attacks he is encouraged to shave off his beard so as to appear less threatening. As Wainwright states, “I don’t think it’s making you Mister Popular around here.” When he is fired, he realised “how deep was the suspicion I had engendered in my colleagues over these past few – bearded and resentful – weeks”. Only Wainright shook his hand.

Changez’s personal awakening also coincides with the World Trade Centre Attack. This attack specifically unleashed a wave of racist events against Muslims. Before the attack, Changez did not feel conspicuous, perhaps occasionally on the highway. However, after the attacks racism increases and he feels noticeable. When he returns to America, he is searched separately from everyone else. As Changez notes Pakistani cabdrivers “were being beaten to within an inch of their lives” and the FBI was raiding mosques, shops and “even people’s houses”. In the parking lot, he becomes the butt of racist sentiments when one offender deliberately seeks to intimidate him with racist, derogatory language. “Fucking Arab”. Changez challenges him to “say it to my face coward, not as you run and hide”.

The final stage of Changez’s journey is his return to Pakistan with his dual American-Pakistani gaze and his “ex-janissary’s skills”. Through his return, Hamid suggests that it is important to “transcend” rather than erect boundaries (and dispel rather than reinforce stereotypes). Only then can people and nations attempt to resolve conflict in a way that respects each other’s cultural roots. Specifically, as a lecturer in Pakistan, Changez encourages students to adopt the gaze of the ex-janissary and campaign for greater independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs rather than comply with an economic system that conspires to erase Muslim culture. He is critical of America’s empire-building techniques that simultaneously take advantage of Pakistan in the war against terror, but also support India in the war in Kashmir. According to Hamid, America is “tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan” for its own purposes. At the same time, Changez does not appear to be anti-American; rather he returns home forever nostalgic for Erica (imagining her on the motorbike) as a symbol of the America that he embraces. She, too, remains an integral part of his “American gaze”. In other words, he does not want to discard the positive features of his experience and involvement in America; Hamid suggests that this would be churlish and impractical.

Rather Changez cultivates his dual perspective — one that respects and blurs boundaries based on the paradox of belonging: “Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.” According to Hamid, this dual perspective can enrich his worldview, and can help deal with differences in a positive way. Not only does he practice his “ex janissary skills”, but he also brings with him “a firefly’s glow bright enough to transcend the boundaries of continents and civilisations”. In other words, the brightness of the glow attracts attention: it emanates from outside and is visionary. Why? Coupled with the “ex janissary skills” that focus on cultural pride, Changez shows a mature awareness of cultural perspectives and preaches the need to both overcome differences, whilst resisting assimilation. (In other words, we must cultivate and celebrate difference but in a way that transcends boundaries; we must nurture difference in a way that does not lead to “commingling identities” such as that of the dead lovers which suffocates and destroys Erica; we must celebrate difference in a way that does not breed suspicion and fear– such hostile emotions potentially result in bombings and destruction.)

So this is, then, the function of the dual gaze: a gaze that reflects and withstands the tension between the East and the West. It would negotiate in a more positive way the strange and uneasy suspicions that swirl, unfounded, between the Pakistani “terrorist” and the American “undercover agent”.

Love and nostalgia
As Changez becomes romantically entwined with Erica, he experiences first-hand the extent to which she is gripped by a powerful nostalgia. She uses Changez to reinvent or recreate her relationship with Chris, and as this becomes impossible, so spirals into depression. She becomes increasingly nostalgic for a romantic past to which she cannot return. When Changez searches for Erica in the institution the nurse explains the difficulties that Erica is facing as she comes to terms with her love for Chris who is very much present in her mind. “Because you’re the most real, and you make her lose her balance.”

Whilst nostalgia has positive distillations in the novel, Hamid points to the dangers that arise if we become too obsessive and lose our perspective on life. Erica’s obsession with her dead lover overrides the present reality and threatens her stability and particularly, her ability to forge other romantic attachments. The only way Erica is able to escape from her melancholy and allow her relationship with Changez to become intimate is when Changez inadvertently commits a faux pas and pretends to be Chris. Changez realises that he is in danger of becoming immersed to the point of losing his own identity. Likewise, as Erica becomes enveloped in her nostalgia and obsessed with painful memories, she becomes mentally unstable. She becomes languid and “lacking life” and presumably throws herself into the Hudson River. Hamid points to the importance of a healthy equilibrium.

Hamid also characterises Erica as a symbol of America to reinforce his views and criticisms of America in its pursuit of undisputed global dominance.  Like Erica, America, too, is guilty of a dangerous obsession with past glory. After the World Trade Centre bombings, many citizens were becoming dangerously patriotic. There was an “undeniable retro about the flags and uniforms, ‘’duty and honor”. Just as Erica tried to look back towards  a lost past and a lost lover, (Chris) American citizens turned back to a lost time when they dominated the world. It is “like living in a film about World War II. This allegory suggests that such an anachronistic (looking back) attitude will also be dangerous for America as it seeks to make adjustments to its waning global dominance. Such dominance is, as in the case of the former glory of the Ottomans, cyclical.

Not only does Hamid suggests that such yearning for undisputed global dominance, based on Christian values, will be to America’s detriment (as it is to Erika’s) , he also personally rejects its self-serving agenda. Rejecting aspects of the American dream, Hamid is critical of an empire that resorts to double dealing in order to suit its global political agenda. As Changez notes, “despite the assistance we had given America in Afghanistan, America would not fight at our side” (144).  After all, America felt justified in “risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan”. (203)

A final word on social context and racial profiling:

And the message?

Hamid uses the monologue structure to warn against the dangers of racial profiling that fuels suspicion and promotes hatred, ultimately leading to violence.

Not only does Hamid draw upon the context of the World Trade Centre bombings. He also taps into deep-seated frustration that surrounds minority racial groups. Racial profiling was very evident in the 2013 case between George Zimmerman trial (2013) who was charged with second-degree murder of the black man, Trayvon Martin in 2012. The Hispanic defendant was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defence even though he pursued and shot the unarmed Martin. All six jurors were women; only one was of non-white or Hispanic origin.  (Mr Zimmerman’s defence centred on the “stand your ground” laws that allow individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves.)

President Obama offered no opinion on the not-guilty verdict but did discuss the poisonous affect of racial profiling: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.  There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, as least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

Currently, the commitment to return to war in Iraq, shows once again the dangers of racial profiling as many Muslims attest to the fact that they are being associated with terrorists (this time with ISIS).  On Q & A (ABC, Monday 22nd September), many Muslims in the audience expressed their concern at the rise in hate speech.  One audience member told Tony Jones that she was being stalked by members of the Australian Defence League on social media. “They’ve called to slit my – the – my – my children’s throats and rape my dead ‘caucus’ on the side of the road.” Likewise, another Muslim, Asme Fahmi said, “A couple of years ago, as I was on my way to work, I was physically attacked by a man who called me “an effing terrorist”.  Indeed, on the Australian Defence League’s website,  one of its leaders Ralph Cerminara, says, “”They are putting that hijab on themselves, the same as a person would be putting a satanic star around their neck. “ He also said, “If Muslims have to die then so be it. It is us against them.”


Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works)