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“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is the second book of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, published in 2007. In telling the story of a young Pakistani man falling in and out of love with the United States of America, Mohsin Ahmed attempts to demonstrate the reasons that compel moderate Muslims to become disenchanted with a jingoist America since September 11, 2001.
In the opening lines of the book, one reads “Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America”. This is not true for the main character no longer loves America. He did, but no longer does. The rest of the book is essentially the story of this transition from a lover of America to a dislike of what America has turned out to be, since the September 11, attacks. This disenchantment with America gives rise to sympathy for the Muslim fundamentalists.
By bringing in the issue of the beard in these beginning lines itself, the author attempts to tell the Americans that not all Muslims are fundamentalists, but the narrow perceptions of the Americans, are pushing many of the moderate Muslims, who once held America in high regard, to toe the fundamentalist line. Maybe in this lies the title of the book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”.
The book is written in a monologue form deftly from the perspective of a young Pakistani man with the name of Changez. The name appears to be deliberate, giving the theme of the book. The form adopted by the author is to enhance the Muslim moderate perspective, probably because the American stance is well known. The story delivered in brief tells of this young Changez, from a well-to-do family in Pakistan, proceeding to America, to study there and become a part of the American dream.
He does just that. He graduates from Princeton becoming more of an American and less of the Pakistani he was. He begins his career in a high position in a prestigious firm Underwood Samson involved in the ruthless evaluation of companies targeted for the popular game of Corporate American called takeover. His experience with the firm in different places around the globe makes him learn about the American preoccupation for success and wealth that leads them to look at higher profits by cutting costs through the downsizing of workforces.
The disenchantment begins. The high and haughty part of the American dream is not part of the American dream that Changez bargained for. The events of September 11, 2001, occur, which causes America to view foreigners, particularly all the Muslims with suspicion irrespective of their stance on Muslim fundamentalism. It is an attitude held by nearly all Americans. The superior attitude of America makes them blind to other cultures.
This perspective of Changez, can be seen in the second paragraph of the book “How did I know you were American? ….. it was your bearing”. The response of America to the events was an overpowering aerial attack on the mismatched tribesmen of Afghanistan, with planes and missiles raining hellfire on them. Disillusionment with America and the American dream sets in. Changez returns to Lahore in his native country Pakistan.
There are two other secondary characters in the book. One is the American he chances upon in Lahore, to whom he tells this story. By using such a strategy, the author can present his perspective of America and the reason for the growing disenchantment with America, felt by many Muslims.
The other character is Erica, an American woman that he loved and lost, because of her attachment to her former dead lover Chris. This side story is entwined into the main story, probably as a means to further enhance the separation of Changez from America. Through Erica’s obsession with the past, Mohsin Hamid attempts to remind the reader of the current nostalgia that holds for the time when it was looked upon as the leader of the world, a dying or dead perception.
The only area that the book can be said to be deficient in is the lack of some morally superior alternative values than the American values that Changes oppose so strongly. This leaves open the question of whether such values exist in moderate Muslims or Fundamentalism. However, the book meets the perspective of raising the need for an American introspection on its values and attitude to its position in a polarizing world.
In an elegantly and superbly written story, Mohsin Ahmed in his book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” has portrayed an episode in the frequently occurring encounters between the east and the west that is increasing the sympathy for Fundamentalism, as disenchantment with the western morals and values sets in.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. California: Harcourt, 2007.