Essay About The Reluctant Fundamentalist Review

A probing conversation between Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani activist, and Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American agent, forms the core of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. IFC Films hide caption

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IFC Films

Coming as it does amid intense public debate about the alienation of immigrants in America, the release of Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is both timely and slightly eerie.

The movie, based on a well-received novel by Mohsin Hamid, charts the political and spiritual journey of Changez, a driven young Pakistani who arrives in New York determined to succeed, American-style.

As new immigrants go, Changez — played by charismatic British actor-rapper Riz Ahmed, who has liquid black eyes and a soulful stare that gets right under your skin — is unusually privileged. First comes Princeton, then a ritzy job as a business analyst under the mentorship of a tough boss (Kiefer Sutherland, middle-aged at last), and an arty, pale-skinned girlfriend fetchingly played by Kate Hudson.

Changez, in short, seems to have it made. His work assessing the profitability of small companies around the world — and ruthlessly downsizing or toppling them if they're not — troubles him not one iota. That is, until Sept. 11 comes, bringing in its wake a surge in American patriotism and a jittery hypersensitivity about dark-skinned faces that offers Changez his own private education in arbitrary injustice. A beard appears on his Christlike face, and when next we see him he's delivering firebrand speeches against foreign invaders at a Lahore university.

In America, Changez is mentored by a hard-charging boss (Kiefer Sutherland) at a high-profile business analytics firm. IFC Films hide caption

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IFC Films

In America, Changez is mentored by a hard-charging boss (Kiefer Sutherland) at a high-profile business analytics firm.

IFC Films

This may not add up to quite what you think, though. With the kidnapping of an American professor in the opening scene in Lahore, The Reluctant Fundamentalist positions itself as a thriller. Yet it's framed as a teahouse conversation between Changez and Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist with his own conflicts of loyalty and belief. As a student protest against a repressive Pakistani government gathers steam around the two men, heavily monitored by the CIA, it's Bobby who must listen to Changez's story — all of it, the young Pakistani insists.

With author Hamid's help, Nair and her co-screenwriter, William Wheeler, have ironed out some crucial ambiguities in the novel's account of the uneasy relationship between the two men. In the book, the identities of both remain tantalizingly undefined; in the movie we learn early on that Bobby is an ambivalent CIA operative, torn between his sympathy for the protest movement and his growing conviction that the United States has a role to play in the war-torn region.

The changes work fine for dramatic purposes, and Nair adroitly manages the tension between talk and action. Darting back and forth in time and place, between Lahore and New York (Atlanta, actually, but you'd never know) she unfolds a tale of a man trying to find home in two key global cities, each with a vibrant culture of its own.

Nair likes to have fun even when her material is somber, and for this movie she deploys a rich palette and a multi-culti but mostly kitsch-free score that fuses old and new with a lovely Sufi devotional piece, and is peppered with Pakistani pop. She indulges her sensual side with a wedding, as well as a cheeky turn by Pakistani singer Meesha Shafi as Changez's America-obsessed sister.

Who is Changez? "I am a lover of America," he tells Bobby as he begins and ends his story. Yet he also loves his birthplace with equal fervor and critical scrutiny, and suggests the two countries have more in common than meets the eye. The word "fundamental" pops up just twice, once from the mouth of Changez's go-for-broke capitalist boss, and again from a newly radicalized Changez.

Like Hamid, Nair sees more hope than threat in the fractured identities that increasingly dominate our fluid world. But she won't go all the way with him to disturb our media-fed pieties. When Changez recounts his immediate response on seeing the planes plow into the World Trade Center, Bobby is shocked. I was too.

Yet in context, this is less an assertion of malice or callousness than a surge of reflexive anger toward a nation that has rewarded his efforts to become a model citizen with only the most contingent acceptance. Attention must be paid — so it's a pity that at the end, in a departure from Hamid's enigmatic restraint, The Reluctant Fundamentalist collapses in a heap of wool-gathering humanism that feels warm to the touch, yet fatally hedges its political bets.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

  • Director: Mira Nair
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running Time: 130 minutes

Rated R for language, some violence and brief sexuality

With: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber

The question “who is to be blamed” wafts uneasily through the entire tapestry of Changez’s tale. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, leaves the reader disturbed and questioning. Why does Changez adopt the rabid path that he does? Who really is the quiet and muscular American sitting across the table from Changez, sharp and cautious, with a metallic object by his chest, for which he repeatedly reaches upon sensing a threat? Who is the waiter, formidable and terse, serving Changez and the American at the café, and why does he seemingly pursue them through the dark alleys of the Pakistani city of Lahore? And what happens after the novel ends, late at night, as the waiter signals to Changez to stop the American, Changez cryptically pronounces—“we shall at last part company”—and the American reaches for the metallic object under his jacket?

The novel, a dramatic monologue, follows Changez from Pakistan to America and back to Pakistan. Changez recounts his tale when he sees an American at a Lahore café and initiates a conversation with him. Born and brought up in Pakistan, Changez matriculates at Princeton, graduating summa cum laude. He begins work, thereafter, with a dauntingly selective and boutique valuation firm, Underwood Samson, based in New York. Just as his professional career is about to start, he forms an intimate friendship with the enchanting and well-placed Erica. Content both financially and socially, Changez is enthusiastic about his new life as a New Yorker. But then, as he is in Philippines on a work trip, 9/11 happens.

It seems odd, perhaps, to review today a book published in 2007. Revisiting The Reluctant Fundamentalist, however, is instructive. Examining Changez’s political trajectory following 9/11, for example, is increasingly important given the continued challenges America faces in the War on Terror, and in its engagement with the Muslim world. Reassessing the novel seems necessary not least as we try to find answers to the tempestuous relations between the United States and Pakistan. The novel itself has gained remarkable fame: American universities, including Georgetown, Tulane, and Washington University in Sr. Louis, have encouraged entire incoming classes to read the book. It is presently being adapted into movie form, which will vastly increase the number of people acquainted with Changez’s story. With all the attention that has been awarded tothe novel, one wonders as to the political message being extracted from the story. Reviews worldwide have been adulatory towards the book’s literary merit. Without question, the prose is crisp, understated, and charming.

Alarming, though, is the sympathy that several respectable reviewers have accorded Changez. Is it not rather charitable and misleading of Kirkus Reviews to note that the novel is a “grim reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, miscommunication and confrontation?” These practices may all be questionable undertakings, but they are not the subject of the novel. The Daily Telegraph, likewise, notes that the novel is “a microcosm of the cankerous suspicion between East and West.” It isn’t. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about the twisted, self-righteous, simplistic, and self-serving political path that Changez adopts. He isn’t a “reluctant” fundamentalist. Rather, he is a fairly deliberate and self-deluding one.

MISPLACED HAUTEUR

Changez feels betrayed by America in the aftermath of 9/11. Manhattan, which had always seemed welcoming to him, and its crowds, in which he had always found a place and felt at ease, suddenly began to seem to accuse him. Suddenly, he became the target of racist slurs. As America prepared for military retaliation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he began to feel even more discomfited. By working in American high finance, was he implicitly serving as an agent for the expansion of American empire, he wondered. Was he, by working in Wall Street and indirectly financing the American military, waging a war against his own family and friends in Pakistan? He felt betrayed, furthermore, by Erica, the American girl he loved, but who withdraws to a clinic to contend with a chronic psychological battle. Soon, as the once upliftingAmerican winds seemed suddenly to reverse their course towards him, Changez begins to further identify as a Pakistani. He decides to abandon his job in New York and returns to Pakistan. In Lahore, he becomes a university lecturer, an advocate for anti-Americanism, and an inspiration for oft-violent political rallies.

Changez’s rationale for becoming fundamentalist is contemptible. He wrongly reduces the contemporary political context to a binary—that he could either continue with his New York job and thereby side with America, or abandon America and return to Pakistan. As various inspiring real life accounts attest, these were not the solitary options available to a Pakistani and  a Muslim in the aftermath of 9/11.

Pakistan’s current Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, is a forceful example of the courage and thoughtfulness that has inspired many Pakistanis to meaningfully develop and strengthen Pakistan, particularly after 9/11. Ambassador Rehman has worked towards increasing the autonomy of Pakistan’s media from the army, politicians, and religion, and towards enhancing the quality of its journalism. She has fought for women’s rights and against home-grown terrorism. Recently, on February 15, 2012, she noted in a speech at the US Institute for Peace that terrorism from Pakistani extremists at home was as much a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty as an intrusion from another country might be. One may choose to dismiss Ambassador Rehman as an outlier, an elite exception, or as superficially preaching modernity and liberalism. There are, though, various other inspiring people working at the Pakistani grassroots. One example is Shahnaz Bukhari, head of the Progressive Women’s Association in Pakistan. Among various endeavors, a crucial issue for which Mrs. Bukhari has advocated is the empowerment of victimized women, especially in the face of the hundreds of “acid attacks” Pakistan has witnessed over recent years. Rejected suitors and offended husbands, in seeking to uphold some twisted conception of honor, have taken to slewing acid over women’s faces, leaving them disfigured and often blind. Ordinary individuals such as Mrs. Bukhari seek legal, psychological and medical recourse for victims of such attacks. There are hundreds of other Pakistanis who, like Ambassador Rehman and Mrs. Bukhari, have worked more effectively towards strengthening Pakistan than have the likes of Changez.

Extremist groups in Pakistan, nevertheless, continue to insinuate that to be a patriotic Pakistani, one must fight for Jihad and defeat America. They adopt what we might call a Changezian view. A wry joke among scholars of South Asia is that the three chief sources of trouble for Pakistan—all starting with A—have been the Army, Allah, and America. Such an assessment may or may not be correct, but it is clear that Changez singularly accuses America (and tangentially India) for Pakistan’s problems. He takes a chilling pride in the nativism prevalent in parts of his country. In addressing the American, he says with not insignificant hauteur that none “of these worthy restaurateurs [in the Lahore bazaar] would consider placing a western dish on his menu.”[1] He states rather glibly that Pakistanis “were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets.”[2]   However, he hardly helps the country by himself acting the radical.

‘SMILER WITH THE KNIFE’

One could be forgiven for thinking that Changez’s rationale for his actions is too abundant with conundrums and contradictions for a Princeton summa cum laude graduate. After 9/11, it wasn’t, as he suggests, only America that decided to wage war on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but a union of diverse countries with support from around the world. He is critical of America’s inhumanity in collaterally harming innocent people around the world, but is above expressing sorrow for the lives lost on 9/11. On the contrary, he recalls that he smiled as he saw, on television,the Twin Towers’ fall. Even as he meditates on America’s foibles around the world, he does not deign to consider the identity of the 9/11 perpetrators, and by what coincidence they had been in Pakistan and Afghanistan before 9/11. He complains, with breathtaking cynicism, of how India and America together sought to harm his country following the attack on the Indian Parliament, three months after 9/11; yet, he fails, again, to consider that the men behind this attack were from Pakistan. He levels the contention that the American “flag invaded New York after the attacks; it was everywhere.” Well, one might ask, “So what?” And, further, “Why not?” After all, New York was the focus of the destruction that September morning. A country was shaken. Is it not natural to become patriotic at such a time? Is it inconceivable for a country to come together around its national symbol, the stars and stripes, at a moment of tragedy?

Changez’s actions betray, as well, a deep lack of gratitude. It was in America that he received a remarkable education, with financial aid; as he recounts to the American at the Lahore café, “Princeton inspired in me the feeling that my life was a film in which I was the star and everything was possible. I have access to this beautiful campus, I thought, to professors who are titans in their fields…”[3]It was in America that he was able to earn $80,000 as starting salary. But with 9/11, at a time when America was most vulnerable, he turned on the country that had given him so much. He isn’t, in light of his various shortcomings, a reluctant fundamentalist, as he so luxuriously and conceitedly considers himself. A more accurate appellation, in Chaucer’s chilling words, would be “the smiler with the knife under the cloak.” His English is sweet, he is intelligent, as well as somewhat agreeable; but his unthoughtful assessment of America, his host country, leads him to become unwarrantedly adversarial towards it.

CONCLUSION:

The reader is disappointed with Changez because as a young and well-educated Pakistani who has experienced American life, he is uniquely placed to encourage moderation and engage critically in the post-9/11 debate. At a time when most in his country saw the conflict as a zero-sum situation, he could have argued for positive-sum solutions, fighting for ideals and not simply the home government. Many, indeed, have striven to do so since then. But Changez failed.

The problem with his politics is clear: he fails to hold his homeland, Pakistan, and himself to the same standards and expectations to which he holds America. A book review by The Guardian questions Changez the most pointedly: “By what higher personal virtue does Changez presume to judge? … one expects Changez’s opposition to America to be founded on some morally superior alternative set of values.” But he hardly provides anything by way of a suitable alternative.

His exclusivist posture of fighting for Pakistan and against America contradicts, further, his more complex identity. For instance, he casually tells Erica that since “alcohol was illegal for Muslims to buy… I had a Christian bootlegger who delivered booze to my house.” He does drink, so in a sense he cannot be a Pakistani, for Pakistan is an Islamic state, and Islam does not permit alcohol. In a similar conundrum, he is encouraging of women sunbathing with the sparsest of garments. It would be beyond the most sporting of imaginations to see such a view as consistent with traditional Pakistani culture.  Such a conflict between strict Islamic ideals and his more eclectic identity should have suggested to him that the puritanism he decides to embrace could not be the answer.As many renowned Pakistani scholars, such as Najam Sethi, have argued, it is in Pakistan’s interest to honestly examine its own shortcomings, rather than seek to apportion blame abroad. Pakistani youth should understand that they have a more fulfilling and effective alternative to a blind alliance with the most extreme interpretations of Pakistan’s national interest, which inevitably tend to espouse excessive militaristic and religious vigor.

None of the criticism directed at Changez and others like him should diminish the blame that many Americans deserve for their particular expression of anger in the aftermath of 9/11. Actions such as the targeting of Muslim taxi-drivers and the subjection of American Muslims to racist slurs were and are inexcusable.

But the question remains: who is to be blamed? While there is, of course, no single answer regarding the larger political milieu in Afghanistan and Pakistan, within the novel there is no doubt regarding Changez’s culpability. His “reluctance” is too convenient, too self-satisfying. No one had forced him to work in American finance. He chose to. And if he believes that doing so made him an agent of American imperialism, he has only himself to blame.

One might contend that Changez is a fictitious character and that his views do not mirror modern conditions in mainstream Pakistan. Current events, however, suggest that those emulating his example are active and abundant. Most astounding, in this regard, are the events surrounding Dr. Shakil Afridi. Afridi, a Pakistani citizen, allegedly helped America with locating and identifying Osama bin-Laden. Yet the Pakistani state, instead of felicitating him for having assisted with the capture of a terrorist, is currently working towards charging him with treason. So what, the state seems to be asserting, if the doctor helped kill the man who is responsible, directly and indirectly, for hundreds of Pakistani and other deaths? He is guilty, nonetheless, of having helped the Americans! Changez would approve.

Abhimanyu Chandra is an undergraduate student at Yale University majoring in Political Science. Presently, he is interning with the Department of State’s Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.  He can be contacted at abhimanyu.chandra@yale.edu


[1] Hamid, Mohsin.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2007.  P.101

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