The Reluctant Fundamentalist

August 3, 2015

I fancy that I have a sensitive ear for language. I can tell within seconds whether an FM radio station is public-NPR, public-otherwise, or evangelical. This applies to books too. Consider this combination:

  • Author – Mohsin Hamid
  • Title – The Reluctant Fundamentalist
  • Opening paragraph – “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. 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.”

I was hooked, but I also thought I knew what would be coming next…

especially because I had been coached by a Fresh Air interview with the author when the book came out in hardcover several years ago. Even so, the past year of news stories – mainly of ISIS conquests and beheadings, and the West’s misunderstanding of this new threat – had colored my expectations. A book about Islamic fundamentalists felt almost dangerous in my hands.

Still, a book is just a book, right? There is ambivalence in the title. The ‘fundamentalist’ is ‘reluctant’. And ambivalence drips right through the first paragraph. The narrator go out of his way to profess his love for America, and his English is beautiful, scripted in much more formal phrases than any American would ever use. And yet. And yet. He has a beard. (When did I last attach so much significance to facial hair?) And he thrusts himself upon a stranger, an American traveler, in an apparent gesture of friendship, even though he fully recognizes, how much distrust this gesture creates. Is he friend or foe?

The Wikipedia entry does an admirable job of listing plot points which just goes to show: knowing a book’s plot can tell you very little about a book.

First, there is the way the book is told. There is only one voice: the narrator’s. The book is a monologue and his memoir. It fascinates because he is a captivating storyteller, and also because his story is about us. His love for America is genuine. It began when he was given the opportunity to leave his family’s poverty behind in Pakistan and study at Princeton. It spread its wings when he became romantically infatuated, as so many young college men do, with a beautiful daughter of America’s elite. And his love deepened when he gained that rarest measure of acceptance, to be hired into the innermost halls of American power, i.e., into a Wall Street financial firm, Underwood Samson (the author is too sly to point out that this is really Uncle Sam). Each of these steps feels like a logical progression, a series of well-earned rewards that are part of the contract that America’s meritocracy offers to the rest of the world: work hard, use your abilities, and we will clasp you to our bosom and drown you in riches.

If the second half of the book feels predictable at times (we know that something must drive the narrator back to Pakistan), its compensation is being able to see ourselves through an outsider’s eyes, to see how we invariably hold outsiders at arm’s length, even when we bring them into our midst. His lover proves, like others in America’s elite, to be emotionally damaged and incapable of returning his passion. Underwood Samson is discovered to be an amoral Master Puppeteer. It pulls the strings on countless businesses and lives across the globe with complete disregard for those who are attached to the other ends of the string. Underwood Samson’s entire function is to earn its rich clients a few extra dollars. And then, finally, 9/11 happens, and having dark skin and a beard, for any reason, becomes a crime of morality, and maybe a legal one too.

At some level all of us fancy ourselves to be members of some group. An immigrant may take on the habits and values of Americans, but he can usually access another point-of-view that is unavailable to the rest of us. This was made clear late in the book when the narrator complains about US favoritism towards India in the post-9/11 clashes that occurred between India and Pakistan. I had to stop and ask myself if I had an unconscious pro-India bias. The question, in fact, provided its own answer.

Americans vigorously debate whether our government institutions should create winners and losers inside our country, but we rarely stop to consider how our policies are constantly creating winners and losers outside our borders. We need new eyes. Books like this can help.


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