Seven Questions: Reluctant Fundamentalism

The novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist hit bookstores earlier this month to great fanfare and acclaim. Author Mohsin Hamid wrote his book as a monologue by a young Pakistani who tells the story of his success and subsequent disillusionment with the United States to a stranger he encounters at a Lahore café. FP recently spoke with Hamid about national identity, the flaws of globalization, and the experiences of Muslim immigrants in the West.

FOREIGN POLICY: You were working on your novel before the September 11th attacks, and then took a break before picking it up again. How did the events of that day affect your narrative?

Mohsin Hamid: The story had previously been an understated, minimalist account of one mans departure from America. The immigrant narrative becomes an emigrant narrative, almost a fable where America is no longer pulling, but pushing. But that reversal of polarity from attraction to repulsion was so magnified by the events of 9/11 that my quiet little account of it was no longer adequate.

FP: Why did you call your novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist?

MH: The narrator is a bearded, Pakistani Muslim man named Changez. He is naturally going to be seen as a possible fundamentalist because of how he looks. Yet hes not particularly religious. But during his stay in America, he begins to act in a way that seems increasingly Muslim-nationalist. So theres an element of him being the reluctant fundamentalist in that sense. Changez works for a valuation firm, where he values companies on the basis of their economic fundamentals. As he begins to identify more and more with the employees of the companies that he is valuing, who will then be acquired or sold, he becomes a reluctant fundamentalist in his inability to continue doing that.

FP: Do you think that globalization has heightened the attraction of fundamentalism?

MH: When Changez is working in New York, doing his job and making good money, any attachments to his Pakistani-Muslim identity are easily manageable. But when suddenly he feels that those worlds are in conflict, those latent tribal identities well up inside him and shatter the veneer of being a global cosmopolitan citizen. Its important to remember that tribal identity, which the globalized world tends to mute in order to have us all get along better with each other, has not entirely disappeared.

When you come to the United States, if you have a Pakistani passport, you spend five hours with questions on whether youve had military training. Students from Pakistan often miss the first semester in college because they dont get their visas in time. There are first order and second order citizens in our globalized world, and although we interact at offices and dinner parties as equals, were not treated as equals.

FP: Your narrator leaves New York for Lahore, which seems to indicate that the pull of national identity is strong. What does that say about whether its really possible to be a global cosmopolitan citizen, as Changez tries to be?

MH: That aspiration [for a more cosmopolitan identity] is entirely correct and I dont think its necessarily doomed. The problem is, if were talking about a global cosmopolitan order, the collective punishment of people needs to be ended. In the United States, if there were people who were potential terrorists in the foothills of Appalachia, a police force would be sent in, it would do investigative work, and the people involved would be apprehended and put in jail. It would not be tolerated that cluster bombs would be used to wipe out several hundred people in the hope that some of them are terrorists. That kind of group punishment of people is the antithesis of global citizenship.

FP: What does your novel say about how the United States deals with Muslim immigrants and expatriates?

MH: Its very complicated. Changez is not particularly discriminated against. Working in New York, he prospers. Yet inside him is this latent identity, a sense of pride in somebody elses narrative. And thats something that Americans often forget: These other narratives of people who are much less successfulon the metrics we can measureare still equally proud.

Inside the United States, there is a disproportionate fear of Muslims and of terrorism generally. Three thousand Americans died on 9/11, another 3,000 or so have died in Iraq, and over 42,000 Americans are killed in automobile accidents every year. Yet when we see a Muslim, we feel fear. When we see an automobile, we dont feel that fear. Its this exaggerated fear that results in the sorts of behaviors toward the Muslim world that I think are the problem.

FP: As a person of Pakistani descent now living in London, what do you think of the European response to Muslim immigrant communities that attempt to retain their cultural identities?

MH: I find it utterly problematic. When the Iron Curtain came down and it was revealed that the Catholics in Poland, despite communism, had clung to their traditions and remained fervently Catholic, or that Jews in Russia had remained religiously Jewish, the response in much of the Western press and media was, How wonderful! This is humanity surviving against the odds. When we see instead that Muslim immigrants in these countries are clinging to their traditions, this seems terrifying and barbaric. I personally think that bans on head scarves are preposterous. If you look at Britain, many young men will have beards and many young women will cover their heads. [But their] parents did not do either of those things. These are young people who are making a political choice and are exercising the right to have some visible symbol of those political beliefs.

FP: In a recent Op-Ed for the New York Times, you wrote that you voted for General Pervez Musharrafs re-election as president of Pakistan in 2002, hoping that his enlightened moderation would cleanse Pakistan of the venality and ineffectiveness that plagued the countrys politics in the 1990s. Given what we know about how other military coups have played out, wasnt that a bit too hopeful?

MH: Absolutely. I saw a Pakistan threatened in many different dimensions. I saw someone who was saying the right things. I saw an economic boom beginning. I saw a mass liberalization of media. And so I allowed myself to be very hopeful. Much to the dismay of people who share my other political beliefs, I spoke up in support of [Musharraf]. But I do recognize now that the instinct to retain powerespecially through the weakening of the mainstream political parties and subsequent strengthening of the religious extremistshas undermined the good that has already happened. Was I nave? Perhaps. But Im a novelist, not a political theoretician.

Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (New York: Harcourt, 2007) and Moth Smoke (New York: Picador, 2001).

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